The wearer of the robe shown in this striking image is a Pacific Northwest Coast Native of the Haida Nation. A woman of proud bearing and elegance, Evelyn Vanderhoop (Haida name: Kujuuhl) is a master weaver, artist, educator, mother and grandmother. Two years go, the MFA, Boston brokered a historic commission through the Seattle-based Stonington Gallery for Evelyn to weave this dance robe for our collection. A chief’s robe created in a style known as Raven’s Tail (Yeil Koowu), it is the first textile made by a living Haida artist to be acquired by the MFA. After spending months spinning the long warp threads, the artist worked on her loom for over a year. The robe’s release and transfer of ownership to the Museum took place in a formal dance before a public audience of all ages.
On February 20, 2019, the MFA, Boston stood witness. As Evelyn Vanderhoop took her place in front of the assembled community, she named all the people who were in some way—big or small—involved in her journey of making the Raven’s Tail robe. She spoke of the sustaining flow of creativity that allows her to express her identity and maintain connections to her culture, and to nature. Acknowledging the contributions of her family and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, she was visibly moved in her expression of joy at seeing her daughters, accomplished weavers like herself in the Raven’s Tail and naaxiin traditions, embracing the mantle of their Native culture. Evelyn Vanderhoop’s invitation for all of us to bear witness came as an important calling for all who were gathered.
As part of that witnessing, honored guest and tribal leader Tobias Vanderhoop (Wampanoag) was present to acknowledge the place where we stood as the ancestral land of the Wampanoag Nation, the very ground the MFA, Boston calls home. His powerful summoning of the ancestors took form by the most beautiful singing and drumming I have ever heard. Even the sleepiest ancestor would have been roused by his sonorous voice and the timbre of his drum. As we stood in witness, I was moved to tears in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, where vital connections threaded past and present, ancestors and the living.
The unveiling of the newly-completed robe and its transferal to Evelyn’s shoulders by our Department Chair, Pamela Parmal and Senior Curator, Lauren Whitley was an equally powerful moment. Standing on each side of the artist, they placed the robe upon her. As my attention riveted on this action, the careful effort they made to ensure the two halves of the robe were properly centered did not go unnoticed.
The artist’s daughter Tiffany Vanderhoop (Haida name: S’idluujaa), also present at the assembly along with her three children, and dressed in her traditional regalia, took up her drum and began to chant—her gentle voice and percussive tempo established the heartbeat of her mother’s dance, reaching into the voids of a soaring stairwell where passing visitors above stopped to watch and listen. Stepping with slow, deliberate movement to the pulsating rhythm, hands on hips, and dipping her shoulders from side-to-side with pride and joy, Evelyn activated the dramatic poetry of the robe’s long, soft fringe, black Raven’s Tail tassels and optical geometries. The garment assumed its intended purpose as an agent of knowledge, tradition, and beauty, and was a sight to behold! At the conclusion of the dance, in the spirit of the Potlatch as a gift-giving feast, a large quantity of wooden pencils artfully arranged in a shiny copper pot were distributed to all. On each barrel was printed the Haida phrase for “Thank you”—Háw’aa.
On the morning of the ceremony, two guests I had the honor of welcoming upon their arrival to the Museum were Patrick Garza (Kaiganii Haida from Sxaalants clan) and Cynthia Garza (Mi’kmaq), who made the long journey from Alaska to witness the dance. Both carried luggage containing their Native regalia, including woven hats—exquisitely crafted with sculptural detailing (see left side of images above and below). Patrick spoke of the dance as “a once in a lifetime” occasion that could not be missed. At a special lunch hosted after the ceremony by our department’s donor group to honor the artist, her family and friends, he turned to me and declared, “this is a good day for Haida.”
Jennifer Swope, Assistant Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts, was pivotal in laying the groundwork for the Raven’s Tail commission, the professional documentation of its making, and an interdepartmental partnership with the Museum’s Education arm to stage the public dance event and two drop-in workshops that were held free of charge for visitors of all ages. Here, participants learned about the hand-worked “twining” technique used to create the robe. In Raven’s Tail and naaxiin traditions, the twining of wool starts at the top, and works its way downward. Participants were given opportunities to try it out themselves on diminutive versions of the vertical frame loom traditionally used, fabricated for this occasion by Jennifer and her husband Ian.
Demonstrations of “thigh spinning” were also shown, illustrating how the warp yarns are plied in a “Z” twist by rolling two strands together over one’s thigh, resulting in a soft, springy hand that contributes to the all-important movement of the fringe in dance. (See an earlier post for a discussion about directional spinning).
A special area in the workshop space was graced with a mannequin upon which the Raven’s Tail robe was draped for the benefit of visitors who could observe the garment up close, without some of the proximital restrictions of museum objects on display. While participants gathered at circular tables waiting their turn to twine wool on a frame loom, or sat marveling at the technique of spinning wool by hand on their thigh—they did so while hearing stories as told by these Haida women; stories about growing up, what they remembered, what they learned, what gave meaning to them, and how that meaning became manifest in their art.
Since my time with the department these past few years, my colleague Jennifer Swope has done much to deepen the breadth and scope of the MFA’s Native collections. Her pursuit of this historic commission by a living Haida artist, her vision of collaboration, and her valuing of authentic experiences and hands-on learning greatly expanded the possibilities for a shared understanding of textiles and dress as a powerful expression of identity, culture, and place. On a daily basis, I think about museums as stewards of material culture; it inspires me to have had such a memorable experience of the animated life of an object itself, in active union with the human sphere. I believe that embodied experiences such as these contribute to a deeper appreciation of who we are. Our invitation to witness the living manifestation of an ancient Native tradition, carried forth and re-interpreted in the present moment, has made that possible. Háw’aa.
Evelyn Vanderhoop (Kujuuhl) on Facebook:
Tiffany Vanderhoop (S’idluujaa) website:
Read about Tiffany’s relationship to traditional Haida weaving forms, which she took up at age 22 with her sister, Carrie Anne Vanderhoop. “For me, creating these weavings is personally and culturally significant because it contributes to the cultural revitalization and decolonization of the Haida. These weavings serve as an unbroken link to my ancestors.”
Interview with Carrie Anne Vanderhoop (K’iinuwaas):
Hear Carrie speak about weaving, relationship to land and connection to ancestors as she tells weaving stories, describes weaving materials, designs and techniques, and shares how being a weaver has guided her work and life.
Stonington Gallery News (posted February 12, 2019):
Evelyn Vanderhoop’s Ravenstail Robe Enters the Collection of the MFA Boston
A Closer Look features in-depth posts that develop from “quick studies” by the author based on Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. As such, her deeper explorations share a correspondence with many of the objects she writes about under the category Objects in Brief.