Anna Brown Ehlers

2023 Distinguished ArtistFolk & Traditional Arts2009 Fellowship AwardFolk & Traditional Arts

About the artist

For more than 30 years, Ehlers has been a recognized master and prolific producer of Chilkat weavings for ongoing ceremonial and cultural use.

2023 Distinguished Artist

Ehlers specializes in Chilkat weaving, an ancient art form indigenous to the Alaska Native people of Southeast Alaska. 

2009 Fellowship Award

Brown Ehlers will explore applications of metalwork and mixed media with artists Richard Beasley and Nick Galanin to create new original Chilkat work.

Ancient art form brings meaning to present, tradition to future

By Lily Tuzroyluke

Anna Brown Ehlers is a culture bearer born in Juneau into the Whale House, the Gaanaxteidí (Woodworm) Clan, of the Yéil (Raven) moiety, her ancestry deeply rooted in Klukwan, an ancient Tlingit village historically known for Chilkat weaving. Ehlers continues an ancient and exemplified form of art valued by her Tlingit peoples and other Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

Historically, Chilkat weavers were called aanyádi, or master artists, and considered the aristocrat caste within the Tlingit caste system, often marrying clan leaders. Tlingit clans own Chilkat weaving as at.óowu, or communal sacred objects. Chilkat weaving tells stories of clan history and clan identity, myths and legends, carrying spiritual value and connection to Ancestors.

Ehlers’ weavings — Chilkat robes, tunics, dancing aprons, dance leggings, bibs, and vests — are featured in the most prestigious and prolific museums worldwide and coveted for private collections. Even more important, Tlingit clans commission Ehlers for at.óowu, fostering social and spiritual balance, or wooch yáxh.

Mini-documentary on Anna Brown Ehlers by Pat Race / 2023.

Ehlers remembers when she first saw a Chilkat robe, her first calling into artistry. In 1959, at 4 years old, she says, “My uncle Roy Brown was wearing it in the Fourth of July parade. The peaceful graceful movement of the fringe, and the tribal design exhilarated me. From that moment, I knew I wanted to make Chilkat blankets for the rest of my life.” In her childhood, she watched her grandmothers do beadwork and sewing — maternal grandmother Marie Peters and her paternal grandmother Mary Betts. In her youth she explored many traditional Tlingit art forms, including tailoring and beading. Her weaving began with an apprenticeship under master weaver Jennie Thlunaut, a close friend of her grandmother Mary and 1986 NEA National Heritage Fellow. Ehlers spent months working one-on-one with Thlunaut, learning the spiritual practices and technical methods of weaving.

Culture bearer Jennie Thlunaut of Klukwan teaches Chilkat weaving to Anna early in her career. (Photo by
Anita Brown Verdol)

Collecting materials for traditional Chilkat weaving requires a wealth of traditional knowledge, such as the biology of mountain goats for wool, ecological systems of cedar trees for bark, and seasonal cycles of plants for natural dyes. Her children have helped her since they were old enough to use a knife, she said. “We prepare the materials in the springtime and whenever mountain goat hunters call me and ask me to meet them at the ferry terminal or they send me a hide on a plane, my children and friends and relatives of mine, all show up and work the mountain goat together,” Ehlers said.

Ehlers incorporated silk into this apron.

The wool must be meticulously washed, dried and fluffed. The cedar bark is soaked in water, later to be peeled into thin layers. For yarn, she spins two strips of wool and two strips of cedar bark together — a labor- and skill-intensive process. Setting up the warp on a loom can take up to four months for a full-sized Chilkat robe. Working from a formline pattern, she begins weaving the traditional Chilkat crests, formlines, and designs. One full-size blanket can take a year or longer to complete. Among her innovations are her personal signatures, the introduction of 24-karat gold wire and silk.

Ehlers’s “Killer Whale” blanket , 8′ wide x 7′ tall, is one of the largest Chilkat blankets ever woven. It’s as wide as a newborn killer whale. (Photo by Anna Brown Ehlers)

One of her latest works is an 8-foot-by-7-foot blanket with the design of an orca sized to mirror a newborn killer whale. “It’s a life-size killer whale,” she says.

As aanyádi, Ehlers understands the complex social structure of Tlingit matrilineal society. Since formline designs are clan property, she navigates the history of moieties, clans, and clan houses which are often spread throughout several communities. “The designs on the Chilkat blanket represent our clans,” Ehlers said. “The designs say who you are and by knowing that, I’m from the Whale House, people know where you’re from. And it’s not an ownership of the land, it’s our identity.”

Based upon her unwavering belief in continuing Chilkat weaving as an art form, Ehlers has taught more than 300 people in a variety of educational contexts: universities, Indigenous youth culture camps, and heritage centers. In her own home, she’s mentored dozens of apprentices. She says, “The Tlingit Indian Tribe is alive with vibrant culture. Tribal members still celebrate the lives of their recently deceased via the traditional memorial potlatch. All manner of ancient art forms are practiced today; skin sewing, totem pole carving, the carving of frontlets, hats, rattles, bentwood boxes, and Chilkat blankets are produced in abundance by young and old alike. Oral history is passed on, enlivened by ceremonial song and dance, thereby strengthening the ties between the generations. Continuation of the traditional language and art forms will carry us through the gateway to the future.”

Ehlers cuts a weaving to give away in memory of her daughter at a potlatch in May 2022.

In the service of others, Ehlers has been recognized with an array of prestigious awards, grants, fellowships and honors including the 2017 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, 2006 United States Artists Fellow, 2006 Alaska Governor’s Native Artist Award and 2001 First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award. In 2023, the University of Alaska Southeast honored Ehlers with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts for her significant and lasting contribution to the university and the State of Alaska.

Anna Brown Ehlers is a creator of at.óowu, an aanyádi of her peoples. Her Chilkat weavings are danced, displayed, gifted and studied at ku.éex’, or memorial potlatches, totem pole raisings, traditional gatherings, canoe journeys and ceremonies. This award honors Ehlers for empowering youth, apprentices, Indigenous women and Indigenous artists, and for bringing celebrated sacred objects to Tlingit clans. Her highly revered art form leaves a legacy for living, departed and those yet to be born.

Ehlers’s “Dawn of the Love Birds” blanket, won best of show in Sealaska Heritage Institute’s 2008 Celebration.

Lily Tuzroyluke, a 2017 Individual Artist Project Award recipient, is an Indigenous writer of Iñupiaq, Tlingit and Nisga’a First Nations descent. She is a cousin of Anna Brown Ehlers. Her first novel, published in 2023, is “Sivulliq: Ancestor.”

Artwork by Anna Brown Ehlers

This art was purchased through the Alaska Art Fund managed by Museums Alaska.