The Foundation partnered with 49 Writers, a literary nonprofit, to profile Individual Artist Award recipients from 2017 and 2018. Delores Churchill was the Foundation’s 2006 Distinguished Artist and received a Project Award in 2018. This story was first published in 2020.
Written by Debra McKinney
Ninety years old and struggling with her eyesight, Haida master weaver Delores Churchill is as passionate as ever about traditional weaving protocols. She pays respect to the rainforest before gathering spruce roots to roast, clean and strip, then weaves these roots into intricate baskets the way her ancestors did. She’s as committed as ever, maybe even more so, to passing her knowledge onto others.
Her debut as a traditional weaver got off to a miserable start, though. So miserable, she wanted nothing to do with weaving for the next 30-plus years.
Born in 1929 in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii), Churchill grew up living off the land and sea, using her mother’s baskets to gather berries, harvest shellfish and collect seabird eggs. Her mother, nationally acclaimed master weaver Selina Peratrovich, tried to teach her.
“I wouldn’t listen,” Churchill said with a grin.
Churchill’s first basket was supposed to be cylindrical. It was anything but. Reluctantly, her mother entered it in a contest along other student work.
“Everybody was really shocked when I won,” Churchill said. “I think it was because it was so different from everybody else’s.”
Her mother gave her the blue ribbon but passed the $5 prize money onto a classmate she considered more deserving.
“So, I pulled the blue ribbon off. I threw it on the floor and stomped on it,” Churchill said with a laugh. “I said, ‘I hate weaving anyway!’ I must have been about 7. I never touched it again until I was 40.”
In the first half of her life, Churchill learned subsistence ways, moved to Ketchikan, graduated from high school, got married, had three daughters, and worked as a nurse’s aide for the Catholic hospital there. On Mother’s Day 1959, her husband was hit by a drunk driver and lost both legs below the knee. The hospital nuns encouraged her to go back to school so she could earn bigger paychecks to help support her family. She did and became the hospital’s bookkeeper.
Then came the second half of her life.
“When I turned 40, I started thinking, ‘You know, I always did what my mother and father wanted me to do. And then I started working at the hospital and I always did what the nuns wanted me to do. So, when I turned 40, I thought, ‘You know, I’ve always listened to all these people. What do I really want to do?”
Scuba dive, it turns out. She got certified and discovered a fascinating world under the sea.
Diving wasn’t a huge stretch for this avid hiker. At least once a week she’d climb Deer Mountain, a nearly seven-mile, 3,000-foot hike, the last time at 84.
The most significant turning point in her life also came in her 40s, when it sunk in that traditional Haida weaving was endangered. Her mother was teaching a class at Ketchikan Community College, so she showed up. Peratrovich didn’t exactly embrace her comeback.
“She said in her broken English. ‘I weave, I weave, you no look. Go home.’”
But she didn’t go home. She immersed herself and worked hard to prove up. For the first several years her mother would inspect her baskets, then toss them into the fire.
“When I finally did become her apprentice,” Churchill said, “I was her apprentice for all of her life.”
Churchill, one of the few remaining speakers of the Haida language, X̱aat Kíl, retired from bookkeeping at 45 to pursue weaving full time and help her mother teach. Two months later, her husband died. He’d owned a cab company, so for the next three years Churchill drove taxi.
“I used to tell the nuns, I’m not even Catholic and I ended up in purgatory because I had to drive cab.”
Still, she kept weaving. In addition to Haida basketry, she’s studied Tsimshian, Tlingit, Aleut and other techniques, trusted with the cultural property of others. Her research has taken her to museums throughout the states and Europe. Her baskets, robes and other regalia reside in private collections, fine art galleries and museums across the country and beyond.
Delores Churchill weavings
In 1999, sheep hunters in British Columbia discovered 300-year-old human remains in a retreating glacier. Churchill became infatuated with the spruce-root hat found with Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, or Long Ago Person Found. Working with anthropologists and others, she studied, then recreated it. Her journey exploring the origins of the Long Ago hat is the subject of the documentary “Tracing Roots,” by Sitka filmmaker Ellen Frankenstein, a 2017 Rasmuson Project Award recipient.
Churchill’s long list of honors includes a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Alaska Governor’s Award for the Arts, an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Southeast, and the Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist Award in 2006. Her 2018 Rasmuson Foundation Project Award enabled video documentation of more than 20 techniques for finishing basketry tops. The DVD will supplement her book on traditional baskets of Southeast Alaska.
Churchill, who turned 90 in October 2019 and has macular degeneration, still doesn’t consider herself a master because she never stops learning. Weaving has taught her many things, she said, including to never weave angry.
“Always make peace with yourself and the people around you,” she said. “Weaving really calms you because you forgive people every day. You forgive because you don’t want to put it into your work.”
After 25 years at the Anchorage Daily News, Debra McKinney wrote “Beyond the Bear,” the story of how Dan Bigley put his life back together after being blinded by a grizzly.