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Dorica Jackson, Diving Whale Chilkat Robe

The "Diving Whale Chilkat Robe" by Dorica Jackson is a ceremonial piece, not a blanket. Its design, based on traditional Tlingit art, features a diving whale and abstract figures. The robe's symmetry, color variations, and intricate weaving process, which can take years, highlight its cultural significance. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle jazz piano music) - [Lauren] We're here at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, and we're looking at a "Diving Whale Chilkat Robe" made by Dorica Jackson, the wife of Nathan Jackson. - [Dorica] Originally these were referred to as Chilkat blankets, but really a robe, a dancing robe, a ceremonial robe, or even just Chilkat robe is a more correct way of referring to them because they weren't blankets that you put on your bed. - [Lauren] This robe would have been enlivened through movement, and here in the museum, we're seeing it static. When this would have been used in dance, the fringe would have been moving around. - [Dorica] It really moves beautifully. - [Lauren] We see a robe that's divided into two parts. We have the fringe at the bottom, and then on the top half, we have this very complex design that's divided into three parts. - [Dorica] The Chilkat robe has black and yellow borders across the top and down the side, and then it comes down into a gentle V shape for the bottom section. In this robe, you have a central section that takes up half of the design field, maybe a little more than that, that is traditional Tlingit or Northwest Coast formline design. - [Lauren] This is based on an older design, and you replicated it here. - [Dorica] This is an old design out of a book by George Emmons, where he got explanations on how to weave these robes. And that's what I used when I learned, because Cheryl Samuel hadn't written her books yet. In fact, we were both studying at the same time at the University of Washington. This one depicts a diving whale, and then you have one side panel on each side of that that are more abstract figures. It's harder to tell exactly what they're supposed to be. This is a whale that's diving, so the eyes are at the bottom, and then you have a mouth area under that. There's a part between the eyes you could call the blowhole, the face, which would be the body. There's two flippers above each main eye of the whale that have eyes within themselves. There's lots of eyes in these things. The flukes of the whale are upside-down ovoids, that oblong, rounded shape. - [Lauren] And I'm struck with its perfect symmetry. - [Dorica] The man would actually create the design originally. He'd paint it on a pattern board, just the black formline structure. The black formline structure is your main thing to determine what you're looking at, and that's all he would paint. Traditionally, the colors would go certain places, and inside the ovoids, you would usually have a yellow. In the corners, there's the blue-green color. These were rules that were followed. A lot of the design work in Northwest Coast art is symmetrical. There's also some that's not. But in Chilkat robes, this is called a distributive design. The design fills the whole area, and there's not very much large areas of white. And then you have configurative designs, where you'll see the outline of an animal. There's a lot of white background, and things aren't always connected to each other. Part of the robe I did for Nathan's distributive, but then there's two sockeye salmon surrounded by a lot of white. A lot of Chilkat robes are distributive designs. It's easier to have the symmetry. - [Lauren] The color occasionally is differentiated ever so subtly. - [Dorica] Sometimes you run out of yarn, and you have to dye more, which is what happened with this one. I didn't get it quite the same color, but I've seen this in a lot of older robes as well, where there's not black, it's a dark brown. Sometimes I've seen robes where the blue-green color will change dramatically throughout the weaving process. - [Lauren] And these are very time-consuming robes to make. - [Dorica] My first robe I did as a full-time job, so that one took about a year, which is what's expected, and that's preparation of your materials and the weaving. My second one took about five years. And this one took 16, 'cause in the middle of that, I got a full-time job. This one was going to go somewhere else, and because it took me so long, their situation changed, and I'm really happy that it ended up being able to live in Ketchikan. - [Lauren] I see these differences in the type of fringe that you have here. In some, you have cedar bark that's been woven into it, and then some that just has the wool. - [Dorica] It's a free-hanging warp hung on a loom, so there's no tension on the warp yarn. It hangs on a header cord, and the technique is twining, the same technique as used with the basketry, so you don't even have a shuttle. All the weaving is done on a combination of yellow cedar bark spun with, traditionally, mountain goat wool. A lot of people use merino now. I used merino for this one. Then when you finish the weaving, the overlay fringe, which is your last thing that you do, is just the wool. Naaxein, which is how you say it in Tlingit, is fringe about the body, according to Emmons. - [Lauren] What a wonderful way to capture how this would have been moving as it was used in dance. (gentle jazz piano music)