In early 2011, Della Cheney started weaving a Ravenstail robe for her daughter in honor of her doctoral degree. She had weaved about a quarter of it, when she began to feel not right.
“I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know, so I went to get my yearly test and they found something abnormal,” Cheney says.
She was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. She stopped weaving and had to have surgery and chemotherapy.
A year later, Cheney went back to the robe and started over. This meant undoing 14 inches of weaving, more than a year’s worth of work.
“You don’t want to have bad feelings in the robe. You don’t want to be weaving while you’re thinking bad things or in a bad place,” Cheney’s daughter, Gail Cheney, explains. “So can you tell yourself, ‘No, I want to start again’? That’s hard when you’ve gone down as far as she did when she took it back. In the midst of all her challenges, she held herself to a very high standard.”
Gail was in the process of getting her Ph.D. in leadership and change from Antioch University, a program focused on bringing about change in workplaces and communities.
She was also the Human Resources Director at Sealaska Corp., a position she still holds. Her dissertation explored the future of Native values at an Alaska Native corporation.
Gail says Sealaska has been working on integrating Native values at a corporate level for the past few years. She uses Haa Aaní, meaning ‘our land,’ as an example:
“We have a sense of what Haa Aaní means at a community level – subsistence, maintaining our resources,” Gail says. “What does that mean at a corporate level? Perhaps it means figuring out sustainable uses because we do need to use our land, but we need to use it in way that it’s there for future generations and for everyone’s use.”
Cheney’s challenge was how to show leadership and change in her weaving. She had to work with shapes like rectangles, triangles and squares, characteristic of Ravenstail weaving.
“So I chose to do the pattern called the flying geese pattern to show the change with the geese arriving in the spring and leaving in the fall and how the leadership changes when they’re flying in a flock. They take turns leading,” Cheney says.
The robe shows three rows of geese changing direction, flying right and left, then right again. The prominent colors are red and white.
“The red color shows the power of change and the white color shows the integrity that needs to be followed in order for change to happen,” Cheney says.
On the bottom of the robe is a black design that Cheney calls, “All of Our Ancestors.” It’s the foundation of the robe.
“That’s where our lives started, was from our ancestors,” she says.
The black also represents loss.
“We had four of our family members pass away with cancer in the time I started the robe to the end,” Cheney says.
For Cheney, no evidence of cancer remains. She says weaving is a form of art therapy and helped her through the process of being OK again.
“There’s all that healing that goes on because of that long repetitive movement that you have across the 60-inch robe, going over and under. Each row is a long ways across, maybe 45 minutes to get across. And what do you think about during that time besides the pattern? Really it’s a healing time,” Cheney says.
On the top of the robe, Cheney weaved the words Keex’ Kwáan in big, bold letters, which is Tlingit for their home village of Kake. This was Gail’s idea.
“She has grown up with this love from our family in Kake, so every time she wraps the robe around her she is getting a hug from her family,” Cheney says.
After seven years of studying, Gail received her Ph.D. this past February and had the graduation ceremony in Kake to thank the community. It took her mother three years to finish the robe. In the final year, she brought the loom wherever she went. She weaved in Juneau and Kake. She even brought it to Anchorage.
Gail says the robe represents journeys they both finished.
“When I look at this I think, ‘I’m done, I’m really done.’ I still have a lot of work to do, but the piece that’s kind of been nagging at me for seven years, the wait’s gone. It’s nice to see it finished. I think she feels the same, ‘Oh thank God, I’m done.'”
The robe will outlive both of them, Cheney says. In 500 years, the robe will continue to tell their woven stories of leadership and change.