Ancient art records tribal history — the 1964 Earthquake Robe
March 21, 2018
RENO, Nev. — Alaska storyteller, instructor, demonstrator and chilkat weaver Shelly Laws' (Tlingit) recent visit to the aboriginal territories of the Numa, Newe and Washeshu was a trip of love of her culture — but more so, love of her sister.
Recently, Laws flew into Reno from Anchorage to collect a Tlingit Robe that had been created by her sister, renowned artist Teri Rofkar.
Called the 1964 Earthquake Robe, the work of art was recently displayed as part of the Nevada Museum of Art's "Unsettled" exhibit, which took place Aug. 26, 2017, to Jan. 21, 2018.
Rofkar died before the exhibit debuted, but her sister took responsibility for delivering the robe for the exhibition and taking it back home to Anchorage.
"Here, your Great Basin baskets have designs and hold important things," Laws told a group of 10 Native Americans from area tribes, plus museum staff, during her recent visit to Reno, which included the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. "Our robes have designs and hold people."
Some academics say that to be meaningful, art must be timeless.
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They say that timeless art successfully manifests itself through a unique experience created for the observer. If the work is successful, according to the experts, generations of art aficionados will continue to be moved by the piece.
Rofkar's weaving not only meets the definition of timeless art, but it actually records history for her Raven Clan in Sitka, Alaska.
"Many non-Natives like to say that our people never had a written language," said Laws. "We just didn't have ABCs."
Through her ancient art of weaving, Rofkar depicted the details of this historic natural disaster — the quake and following tsunami occurred March 27, 1964, across south-central Alaska — that forever changed the landscape, as well as the lifestyles of her relatives in their homelands.
From the religious overtones of Christian faith to symbolically disassembling the robe in order to re-piece it in a frayed, loosened weave, Rofkar used patterns and traditional materials such as wool and fur of mountain goat hide and otter fur to reflect the power of nature and the delicate balance necessary for environmental harmony.
In her artist statement, Rofkar wrote, "The arts and our oral history together bring knowledge of ten thousand years of research to life."
Identified as a megathrust earthquake that happened on Good Friday, the quake had a magnitude of 9.2, making it the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded.
It caused underwater landslides and numerous tsunamis, wreaking havoc on multiple coastal cities. Railroad tracks buckled from the movement of the earth as water surged up the riverbanks. One side of the main street in Anchorage collapsed up to 11 feet in spots, while several spans on bridges fell into water.
Rofkar wove in geometric patterns with images and symbols to evoke that story. The robe represents the accurate direction of earth's movement.
Its top border, a traditional design called "Bear Tracks," represents the weight of a large bear as he compacts and shifts the earth under his feet, just as the earthquake did to Fourth Avenue in Anchorage.
The large wave pattern at the bottom of the robe represents the tsunami, which was over 67 feet in places, and the fire it caused in Seward.
Laws explained that the cross was a reminder that before the state of Alaska was bought by the United States in 1867, the Tlingits were ruled by Russia.
In the same manner as U.S. federal Indian policy called for a paternalistic-quasi government/institutional control of American Indian tribes, the Russians also sought to exploit the Tlingits' land for its natural resources, mostly the fur trade, plus there were forced teachings by the Russian Orthodox Church.
During her 30-year career as a professional artist, Rofkar, who specialized in Ravenstail designs and spruce root baskets, garnered national and international acclaim, and she won the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship in 2009.
During Laws' visit to Reno, the group not only discussed Rofkar's work, but commiserated about the past, ongoing and future conflict that contact thrust onto Native American and all aboriginal people.
That conflict was captured in the entire 200-piece collection of "Unsettled" as it blended images of vast, pristine and open land; rich natural resources; diverse indigenous peoples; colonialism; and the ongoing conflicts that inevitably arise when these factors coexist.
Also in her artist statement, Rofkar said, "… the ancient ways of gathering spruce root, with respect for the tree's life and spirit, are a rich lesson in today's world. Decades of weaving have opened my eyes to the pure science that is embedded in Tlingit Art."
Born in California and raised in Anchorage, Rofkar credited her Tlingit grandmother Eliza Monk for introducing her to the weaving that was her life's work. Rofkar was 60 years old.
"Unsettled" will open at the Anchorage Museum on April 6.
This article first published in the RSIC's monthly newsletter, and is republished by First Nation’s Focus with permission. Some content in this story was provided by the Nevada Museum of Art. Additionally, the RSIC thanks Claire Munoz, Ann M. Wolfe, JoAnne Northrup and Amanda Horn. Visit http://www.rsic.org/rsic-newsletter to learn more.