Gwishalaayt – The Spirit Wraps Around You

A long, long time ago on the North Coast of British Columbia the Tsimshian people of the Skeena River began Chilkat weaving. It is said that a young woman and her grandmother were living in a small village, and there was not enough food to go around. The young princess started to fast. Through this process she had a vision of weaving. She took this piece of wool and wove it into a dance apron. The weaving then went north to the Tlingit in Alaska through a marriage.

Gwishalaayt – The Spirit Wraps Around You is a story told through the compelling lives of six Native weavers. They come from various places along the coast of British Columbia, into Southeast Alaska and the Yukon.

Directed by Barb Cranmer, her credits include writing and directing her first documentary, Lazwesa Wa: Strength of the River about the West Coast fishery for the Discovery Channel, which has won numerous awards. She wrote, directed and produced Qatuwas: People Gathering Together about the rebirth of the canoe culture on the Pacific Northwest Coast. This film won the first Telefilm Canada/TV Northern Canada Award, Best Documentary at the American Indian Film Festival, and was invited to the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. T’lina: The Rendering of Wealth about the traditional eulachon fishery won Best Documentary at the American Indian Film Festival, 1999. It was also nominated for a Chalmers Award.

“I have been involved in film and video for fifteen years. The inspiration for my work comes from our own people’s rich history. I am a messenger of this rich history. Our First Nations communities have entrusted me with these stories to bring to the wider public. The telling of our stories from our perspective and giving voice to our native communities is critical.”

“I feel fortunate to be able to live the history of our people through the films I make. I get my source of strength from my community, and most importantly from my family. They give me a strong sense of identity.”

Barb Cranmer is a member of the ‘NAMGIS First Nation of Alert Bay, BC of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation.

“What does Chilkat weaving mean to me? It means power – power of the people that own the rights to use it – power of the person that’s weaving it – the power that goes into the robe – that spiritual power that is put on it when you wear that robe. We believe that it comes alive.”
- William White, Tsimshian weaver

So speaks one of the six traditional Chilkat weavers featured in award-winning ‘Namgis director/producer Barb Cranmer and producer Cari Green’s moving new documentary, Gwishalaayt – The Spirit Wraps Around You. Each of these weavers shares their knowledge and personal experience of practicing an art form that has become a way of life for them, and a celebration of spirit and culture. Shot on location in British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska, this film presents a stunningly visual interconnection between the living landscape, a rich cultural heritage, and the patterns woven by the weaver’s skilled hands.

Through their desire to learn the meaning and technique of an art once thought to be dead by some anthropologists, the weavers have come together. In the formation of the Weavers’ Circle, Chilkat and Northern Geometric traditions are kept alive. In the entire world there are only fifteen weavers that continue to practice an art form that is thousands of years old. By profiling six of these weavers the film offers a rare and valuable insight into the complex process of Chilkat weaving. We see them gathering cedar, making patternboards, dying wool, and weaving. One blanket can take years to make, and carries within it a living history that embodies the dances and ceremonies they were intended for.

In this film, we witness a historic event brought about by the formation of the Weavers’ Circle. The Tlingit keepers of the Chilkat tradition ceremonially return the Chilkat weaving to the Tsimshian people, originators of the art form. This event, catalyzed by the dedication ad spirit of the traditional weavers, is a powerful testament to the continuation of a living, breathing culture.

“Through our knowledge we will pass on the signs and symbols of our people; and through them we will work towards breaking down the artificial boundaries of colonial governments that have attempted to divide the Indigenous Nations and pre-empt traditional boundaries. The importance of traditional art as property to Indigenous people will not be underestimated.”
- Weavers’ Statement, August 1993

Ernestine Hanlon-Abel, Tlingit from the Tlie ne di Clan of Hoonah, Alaska. The clan represents Dog salmon, Crow, Raven. Ernestine has been the driving force for the weavers’ circle to make a statement about the weaving to share with the rest of the world.

Suzi Williams, Tlingit from Klawock, Alaska. She came to the weaving from a life changing experience when she was very young. She saw her first Chilkat blanket at the Burke Museum in Seattle and she knew that she was going to become a Chilkat weaver. This was the first step on the path back home. She is passing on this important artform to her daughter, Yarrow.

Clarissa Hudson, Tlingit from Hoonah, Alaska. She was fortunate to work with the last Master Chilkat weaver, Jenny Thlunaut. Clarissa shares the strong teachings left by Jenny. Clarrisa continues to teach weaving to the Tlingit women in Alaska.

Donna Cranmer, ‘Namgis from Alert Bay, BC of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. Her great, great, great grandmother Mary Ebbetts-Hunt was a Tlingit woman from Tongass Island, Alaska who was a Chilkat weaver. Donna’s direct family lineage gives her the right to weave Chilkat and to dance these beautiful pieces in potlaches today.

Ann Smith, Tutchone-Tlingit from Whitehorse. She feels that when she is weaving it is like being out on the land, and that connection is very important. She sees the strength of the weaving coming from the culture; it is who we are. She honours the past weavers by weaving a blanket called “Grandmother’s Time.”

Willie White, Tsimshian from Prince Rupert, BC is a young man with a big responsibility. There has not been a Chilkat weaver in his Nation for over a hundred years. Willie has made it a priority to take this weaving back to his people. Chilkat weaving started with his people on the Skeena River.