Spruce-Root Hat Replica Reverse Engineers Lost Haida Weaving Art

    Juneau, AK (KINY) - The Sealaska Heritage Institute has received a replica of a Haida Spruce-Root hat that was crafted after a design found in a melting glacier.

    The replica was created by master Haida weaver Delores Churchill that is a near perfect representation of one found on the ancient remains of an indigenous man discovered in that melting glacier in 1999. Tribes gave him the name Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi (“Long Ago Person Found” in Tutchone, a First Nations language). SHI and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN) sponsored a program to test 250 Native people for DNA matches, and the DNA results showed 9 people from Alaska and 8 people from Canada are related to Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi.

    SHI asked Churchill, who shares the same mitochondrial DNA genetic markers as Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi, to conduct a detailed analysis of the hat. The weaving used to make the hat was actually a lost art, until Churchill studied the hat through a sponsorship through SHI. That technique is called a six-strand ending.

    Chuck Smythe, the Director of the Culture and History Department at SHI, was involved with the discovery a couple years later; he and Rosita Worl had gone to a meeting in White Horse in 2001 to discuss the discovery alongside colleagues and what would be done with the remains, clothing, and other items. This is where they learned of the hat.

    “At that point, we didn’t know it was a unique method of weaving that was no longer being practiced,” said Smythe during a phone interview. “Rosita had this idea to send Delores Churchill up there a year or two later and study the hat, study the weaving, and make a replica to make a version of the hat that could be studied by other weavers and thereby preserving that kind of weaving, that stitch.”

    The purchase of one of those replicas was made possible through the support of the Rasmuson Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, said SHI President Rosita Worl.

    Churchill did incorporate a small change to the design, adding a white ermine pelt to the crown.

    Smythe explained the process on asking for a replica for SHI.

    “Well, we were after her to do this for us at least a year ago. She has many orders and it took her quite a while to make this hat; it's very complex. She described how she got part way into it and she had to take apart like a week's worth of work to redo it, because she's very precise. It took her probably 6 months or so to work on this, so we had to do that all in advance and then we weren’t able to apply the grant until she had the object completed.”

    We asked if other members of the community contributed to the research of this item.

    “It was mostly Delores going up there and studying the hat and looking at it very closely inside and out and seeing how it was made and how the different stitches were combined. She went up there and spent a week or two, I can't remember exactly how long it was, but she spent as much time as she needed to be with a hat and look at it carefully. Then she spent a year or so making the first replica.”

    We then asked Smythe what the cultural and educational values of a replica are for a piece such as this.

    “It’s a very concentrated and effective way for artists to learn how to make art in the way that was done in the past. If you choose a masterpiece, then you learn how a masterpiece was created by making a very close replica. We;ve had carver's describe this process to us on how they have learned; one way they learn is by going to Europe and making replicas of wooden boxes and things like that in European museums that were very old and made very beautiful pieces so that’s what we’ve learned and so that’s kind of what we’re promoting here, ways for artists to learn.”

    With technology playing a key role in archival efforts of history, we asked Smythe how technology has affected that sort of work.

    “It is a whole new area that's just emerging, using photogrammetry to make very precise copies of objects by taking multiple photographs in a circular manner and upward from the top and the bottom and the sides, taking 50 to 100 shots and then processing them together to make a 3D image. I think that's going to have a huge effect on making artifacts available to artists that they wouldn't be able to see on their own.”

    The full information release on the artifact can be found at the SHI website, along with a bio of Delores Churchill.



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