Teri Rofkar of Sitka, renowned for her Tlingit weaving and basketry, is among the 11 2009 National Heritage Fellows announced by the National Endowment for the Arts last week. The NEA National Heritage Fellowships are considered America's highest award for traditional folk arts and crafts. Recipients are sometimes referred to as "living cultural treasures." The honor comes with a $25,000 prize.
"I'm still kind of numb from the fact it happened," Rofkar said. "The money couldn't have come at a better time. It's tough to be a traditional artist in this financial climate. It allows me to continue doing what I'm doing. It means I don't have to start cleaning houses for a living."
The Daily News contacted her by phone in Philadelphia, where she's currently working on a book project with the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The museum has a collection of more than 480 Tlingit baskets.
"These guys don't even know I'm a weaver," she said with a laugh.
Rofkar works in many woven art forms but is particularly known for her robes (also called blankets) made in the "raven's tail" style unique to Southeast Alaska. One of her most viewed pieces, "The Robe of Gathered Tradition," hangs in the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. Other notable works are on display at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks and the Denver Art Museum.
She joins a distinguished list of other Native Alaskans who have received the NEA fellowship, including Nathan Jackson, Delores Churchill and Nick and Elena Charles. "They all became great ambassadors for Alaska," Rofkar said.
Her numerous previous honors have included being a lecturer at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (1996) and the American Museum of Natural History in New York (1997), a visiting scholar at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (2003), the Governor's Award for Alaska Native Arts (2005) and a solo show at the Anchorage Museum (2005).
She was among the first recipients of the $50,000 United States Artists Rasmuson Fellowships (2006), an inaugural class that included performance artist Meridith Monk, jazz man Bill Frisell and two other Alaskans, composer John Luther Adams and Anna Brown Ehlers, another Tlingit weaver.
On Friday, Rofkar and Ehlers received two of the eight $12,000 individual artist grants announced by the Rasmuson Foundation on Friday. Jackson received the $25,000 Distinguished Artist Award from the Foundation.
Rofkar, whose Tlingit name is Chas' Koowu Tla'a, is of the Raven Clan, from the Snail House. She credits her grandmother, Eliza Mork, for exposing her to Tlingit weaving early on. "The enthusiasm and love of doing it I definitely got from her," she said.
She was born Sept. 27, 1956, while her parents, Marie Mork Law and Bert Law, were in San Raphael, Calif. The family moved to Anchorage, where she graduated from Dimond High School.
Rofkar now lives in Sitka with her husband, Denny, and three children, Erin, Paul and Graig. Among her pending projects are a robe using buffalo wool -- "Who knew buffalo wool would cost $27 an ounce!" she said -- for the 100th anniversary of Sitka National Historical Park, taking place in 2010.
And she's looking forward to going home to collect raw material for more projects. "I've already told the girls that we'll go out and harvest spruce roots when I get back."
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.