“Basketry is in everyone's background, no matter where their ancestors may have lived; you just have to go back far enough. The part that makes the art unique is the materials used. This art form is a reflection of the relationship we have with where we live.”
Last week, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Teri Rofkar, a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska (Tlingit), a nationally and internationally recognized weaver, and an Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award honoree.
For 30 years, Teri was a basket weaver, taking traditional two- and three-strand techniques commonly used for spruce root baskets and applying them to shawls — her “dancing baskets” as she describes them in a 2013 video for the Rasmussen Foundation.
Teri’s artwork will continue to serve as a link in sustaining indigenous culture in a modern context. In the context of her Southeast Alaskan cultural heritage, she focused diligently on the renewable use of natural resources with the Tlingit’s cultural art of weaving. Throughout her career she was a champion of traditional materials sourcing — harvesting and processing roots, grasses, and wool for her work. The raw material from her wool shawls, for example, were sourced from goats on the Baranoff Islands, often collected by hunters and hikers, with cedar bark and spruce root dyes providing accent colors.
“The materials themselves truly keep me so humble,” she says in the Rasmussen Foundation piece. “If you could smell what this mountain goat smells like when I get it — it’s so rotten and kind of full of bits of goat and little moist it’s even warm. It takes being a bit rotten to come off of the skin. As much as (people say), ‘Wow that’s so lovely and that’s going to be in a museum’ it’s such a raw kind of connection with the animal itself.”
She’s quoted by the National Endowment for the Arts as saying, “Our artwork has such an essence of place. It’s such a reflection of a dynamic kind of lifestyle, but the huge land, the glaciers, the animals, the ocean, it’s so strong and powerful up here. The art has to equally be so strong and powerful.”
Throughout her career, Teri connected indigenous and non-indigenous regional and national leadership at many noteworthy museums and cultural centers. She was an instructor or lecturer for culturally and geographically diverse organizations around the country including the American Museum of Natural History, University of Minnesota, Yale Peabody Museum and the Denver Museum of Natural History.
“I get to carry the culture for a a little while,” she said, “and then I’ll hand it off.”
She is survived by her three children including her daughter, and apprentice, who carries on the weaving traditions handed down to Teri by her grandmother.