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Old art of Athabascan quillwork rediscovered

A faint smell of smoke-tanned moose hide wafted through a workroom at the Anchorage Museum as pots of dyes simmered on heaters. Small piles of porcupine quills, small handmade looms, pieces of moose hide, thread and sinew, sewing kits, and scissors crowded a worktable.

Behind the table, Athabascan artists Shirley Holmberg and Emma Hildebrand recreated the ancient art of quillwork with the help of art conservator Nancy Fonicello. Quillwork was a popular style for decorating Athabascan garments until Europeans introduced glass beads in the mid-1800s.

Holmberg, born and raised in Tanana, now lives in Fairbanks, and Hildebrand, who comes from Northway, now resides in Anchorage. Fonicello traveled from Montana for the museum's five-day artists residency last September.

Quillwork -- using porcupine quills to decorate textiles -- started centuries ago, and is found in all areas of North America where porcupines live, Fonicello said. Hundreds of years before the arrival of glass beads, indigenous artisans, including Athabascans in Alaska, adorned clothing, footwear, knife sheaths and quivers with porcupine quills.

A Dena'ina Athabascan knife sheath collected by Captain George Vancouver in 1794, now in the British Museum, is among the oldest known pieces of Athabascan quillwork. The oldest piece in the Anchorage Museum, a Gwich'in tunic with Dena'ina Athabascan elements, dates to 1850, according to Monica Shah, the museum's director of collections. In recent months several old pieces with quillwork from museums in Finland, Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom Europe returned to the Anchorage Museum, on loan, for display in the "Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi" exhibit.

Beads did not entirely kill off quillwork. A few elders, in Alaska and elsewhere, ensured the art's survival into the 21st century. Today's artists pair quillwork with beadwork and caribou hair tufting, transforming a tradition into a living art and expanding its use to embellish modern day items such as cell phone cases and belt buckles.

But with few Elder practitioners of the art left, most of today's quillwork artists, including Fonicello and Holmberg, taught themselves from books and old objects. "Growing up, I didn't see any beadwork or quillwork because Athabascan life was changing rapidly into a modern age and old customs and skills were falling away," Holmberg said. "Quillwork is old art that requires a lot of time and patience."

In 1982 Holmberg received a Master Artist and Apprentice Grant in Traditional Native Arts from the Alaska State Council on the Arts to study with Lilly Pitka, an Elder and an artist famous for her sewing and beadwork. Holmberg sewed a moose hide dress and moccasins from patterns that Pitka taught her.

"I wanted to put both beads and quills on the dress, but I didn't know how, and couldn't find anyone to teach me," Holmberg said. Her search led her to a book on quillwork written in 1916 by ethnographer William Orchard. "I studied the techniques and figured them out, and then I put quillwork on the neckline and the bottom part of the dress."

Hildebrand became familiar with quillwork during high school in the late 1970s. "A lady in Northway wore a medallion necklace with solid quillwork in a spiral design of pinks and greens. I thought it was beautiful but had no idea how it was done."

That changed about 20 years ago when Dixie Alexander (Athabascan) came to Northway from Fort Yukon to teach caribou hair tufting. "Dixie also knew quillwork and decided to teach us the basic quill appliqué technique, in which a quill is flattened and bent over itself to create a solid row."

Hildebrand began incorporating that quill design in some of the objects she made. Now she shares her knowledge of the old art. For the past 18 years, she has taught basic quillwork, caribou tufting and beading in various outlying communities and in classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The kinship of quill artists with their material is seen in how the artists soften quills in order to flatten them before embroidering or weaving.

"I make quills pliable with my saliva and then I smash them gently with my teeth," said Holmberg. By using those quills and sinew I leave a bit of myself. I am putting some of my DNA in the work, so a part of me -- some of my spirit -- goes into what I make."

On the final day of the residency, Anchorage museum staff received word that the National Museum of Finland had given permission to open two display cases holding objects from its collection that were on loan for the Dena'ina exhibit.

Museum staff first opened a case that contained a pair of Dena'ina caribou hide tunics with extensive quillwork that dated to the 1850s. For almost an hour, the artists and conservators peered at every part of the garments and discussed the finer points of the quill embroidery and the stitches.

After peering at the tunics from every angle, Hildebrand announced, "I see a stitch here that I had figured out myself yesterday, but realize now that it had already been used in the past. But seeing it is comforting. Now I know my ancestors also did it the same way, and rather than seeing it and then duplicating it, I actually did it on my own."

A feeling of loss accompanied the excitement of seeing the old clothing articles from days past, now scattered in museums across Europe.

After the class, Hildebrand said she was ready to teach some of the new techniques in her classes.

"I won't charge money because this skill must be passed on. But I'll ask those that I teach that they commit to teaching one other person," Holmberg said.

"I have to pass it on, can't hold on to it. If a person holds on to their talents and doesn't pass them on, then the talent dies with them."

This article first appeared in First Alaskans Magazine and is republished here with permission.

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