Sitka Weaver Gathers Wool from "Mountain Goat’s Land"
Contact: Michael Hess
By Michael Hess, Park Ranger, Sitka National Historical Park
SITKA, AK -- Usually, the mountain goat wool that Tlingit weaver Teri Rofkar spins into yarn for her Raven’s Tail robes comes to her. Handful by handful, the material arrives in the mail from hunters who are harvesting mountain goats for food and from hikers who collect the clumps left by shedding goats .
Late last summer, Teri, whose Tlingit name is Chas' Koowu Tláa visited Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve for the first time in years with a special-use permit to collect mountain goat wool and harvest spruce roots – continuing her decade-long relationship with the park and a lifelong connection with the place. Glacier Bay managers invite Teri to speak about her art at evening programs whenever she makes it up to the national park from her home in Sitka, which she has done just a few times in the past decade.
Being Tákdeintaan Tlingit, when Teri goes back to Glacier Bay, she goes to her ancestral land. Unlike many of the half-million visitors to this national park on the Alaskan panhandle, her deep relationship to the land goes beyond the incredible beauty of the landscape, or even the use of the resources. Teri’s connection comes from knowing that Tlingit hunters, her ancestors, scaled the wooded mountainsides to the rugged peaks, bringing the goats and their precious fur down to the villages where women first wove the intricate Raven’s Tail robes.
When she weaves her contemporary Raven’s Tail robes in the same ancient style, she shares with the world something she calls place. Just as a house is different than a home, the place Teri’s art embodies isn't necessarily a location, rather it’s a complex historical, cultural, and spatial context that she builds into each of the objects she creates. But these connections aren’t easily made without interpretation from a guide. Teri is that guide.
During her public presentations, Teri discusses not only the meaning and process behind wool gathering, but she also shares how the patterns she weaves communicate contemporary themes. In these programs she talks about her personal journey to resurrect a traditional weaving style that largely disappeared in the century after European contact. The disappearance of the Raven’s Tale tradition tells a sad story about the loss of Tlingit culture. Its reemergence, thanks to Teri and other traditional weavers, speaks to a people’s determination to retain their cultural identity – and place in the world.
Made entirely from goat wool, the robe contains more than eight pounds of fiber, which ordinarily would be about seven goats’ worth of winter coats. But, it isn’t. Instead the fibers of the robe represent hundreds of handfuls of wool from generations of mountain goats from Southeast Alaska. Teri spent 17 years collecting shed wool and hides from hunters and hikers to make the DNA Robe.
The extraordinary time it took to collect the wool also tells a story – a tale about cooperation and the balance and struggle between preserving resources and culture. A number of factors contributed to the time it took to collect the wool. Mountain goats live high on mountains only accessible by hikers and hunters in the summertime. There is competition for the material from other traditional weavers, but also from small alpine mammals that collect the fur to line their burrows. And, even if a hiker were to find a few handfuls of wool to mail to Teri, exposure to the elements may have made it too brittle to be of much use.
The biggest obstacles, however, are federal regulations intended to conserve the goats. Legislators build mechanisms into regulations that allow Native Alaskans to harvest the animals, but it is sometimes a lengthy process. Each federal preserve has different regulations detailing the limitations of gathering wool and hunting protected resources like mountain goats.
In 2004, Teri applied for her first customary and traditional permit with the Forest Service Federal Subsistence Board, which would allow her to work with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and local hunters to harvest three male goats from the Tongass National Forest on Baranof Island. At the Forest Service building in Juneau, Teri showed strands of the mountain goat wool to the board members who would eventually make the decision about her permit. Teri spoke about her connection to the land as the men on the panel listened and took turns feeling the incredibly fine samples – softer even than merino wool, the gold standard of commercial textiles. The board granted her the permit.
That same year, with the help of Wayne Howell, who was a Glacier Bay NP&P Management Assistant, she also applied for and received a permit to harvest mountain goat wool in the park, a separate process through the National Park Service. Teri told them that she wanted to collect the wool for cultural, rather than commercial, purposes. She and the several Tlingit elders who accompanied her to the park meeting explained their relationships with the land. They explained the place. The park issued her the permit which is provided by to collect the wool and the program continues today.
Having to charter a floatplane and then a boat to visit the bush community of Gustavus, the gateway community to Glacier Bay, she can only go every so often. Rather than travel to the high places, she will wait for her occasional boxes or envelopes emanating a distinct goat-like odor, each containing another handful of wool from Ketchikan, Haines, or Glacier Bay. In the meantime, she will use sheep’s wool and other materials to weave her robes in the resurrected Raven’s Tail style, and serve as guide to a thing she calls place – a moment in modern time, a convergence of histories, and the trails and paths above the treeline called Janwu Aani, or “Mountain Goat’s Land.”