Recently, the museum was honored to welcome a very special group—Albert “Hutch” Hunt, his daughter Corinne Hunt, Corinne’s daughter Kayleigh, and other relatives, visited the museum to see a work created by Albert’s grandmother Anislaga (Mary Ebbets Hunt, 1823-1919) in the early 20th century. From Vancouver Island, as are her descendants, Anislaga was a Tlingit woman who is considered to be the finest Tlingit weaver of Chilkat robes.

The robe is on view in the museum’s new gallery devoted to selections from the museum’s collection of the art of the Pacific, Africa, and the Americas. Among the most important works in the Native American collection, the robe is the focal point of that section of the gallery.

The robe was purchased for the collection in 1935, and since it has been in the museum’s care for almost 80 years, is in excellent condition. When the robe was acquired, the weaver’s name was not identified; therefore it was exhibited as the work of an unknown artist. However, its design and quality are so distinctive that it has more recently been identified as the work of Anislaga, confirmed by the visiting family members who pointed out the yellow and black woven abstract rectangular design in the bottom corners of the robe, which is her “signature.”

Anislaga's 'signature' on her Chilkat robe in the museum's collection.

Anislaga’s ‘signature’ on her Chilkat robe in the museum’s collection.

The daughter of a chief of the Chilkat group of Tongass Tlingit from Klukwan, Alaska, on the Chilkat River, Anislaga met and married Robert Hunt (1828-1893), an Englishman who arrived at Fort Rupert, the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost on Vancouver Island, in 1850. He worked for the company, serving as postmaster there from 1871 to 1882, and eventually bought the trading post at Fort Rupert from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Hunts raised a family of eleven.

A classic form of Northwest Coast weaving, the Chilkat robe or “dance blanket” is made with one of the most complex weaving techniques and can take as long as a year to complete. Typically worn by prominent tribal members on important ceremonial occasions, the flat top edge was draped over the shoulders, and it would have been worn with a shirt, an apron that covered the front of the lower torso and thighs, and leggings which covered the lower legs. (Anislaga also made aprons and leggings.) It features long fringe that sways when the wearer dances (the Tlingit name for it, naaxein, means “fringe around the body”), and the bold central panel shows prominently across the back of the garment, creating an impressive visual statement.

The materials were mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark, using dyed yellow, blue-green, and black colors, as well as the natural buff color of the undyed wool. (Interestingly, in the museum’s robe, Anislaga did not incorporate cedar bark.) The Chilkat loom has a top frame and vertical supports, with no bottom frame. The warp threads hang freely, allowing the weaver to work in vertical sections, as opposed to moving horizontally from end to end. Consequently, many designs are broken into vertical columns, and, as is common in Northwest Coast art, the designs are bilaterally symmetrical.

The method is unique in that the artist can create curvilinear and circular forms within the weave itself, using the traditional aesthetic language of highly stylized clan totems and figures from oral history—often representing animals, especially their facial features. Anislaga was a member of the Raven clan of the Tongass tribe of the Tlingit nation of southeastern Alaska, and the central element in her robes is a raven, seen frontally twice in the center section of the museum’s robe (large above and smaller below) and in profile on either side. Other heads with mouths baring teeth represent mythological ghost spirits, and the design is completed with a mosaic-like pattern of abstract/symbolic forms surrounding the major pictorial elements.

The robe has been occasionally on view in the museum’s galleries, and it was published in our 1990 Selected Works catalog (the maker’s name at that time was unknown). Though the Hunt family had heard that one of Anislaga’s robes was in Hawai‘i, they didn’t know it was in the museum’s collection. Now that the maker has been firmly identified as Anislaga, the robe is of special importance, making it one of the museum’s treasures and an example of Tlingit weaving of the highest quality. According to the Hunt family, this is the eleventh robe made by Anisalaga that is known to exist; others are still owned by family members or are in private and public collections.

Corinne Hunt, a noted designer and engraver who co-designed the medals for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and Paralympics, is making a documentary about her great grandmother. Learn more about Anislaga and the project.