Isabel Rorick is an internationally renowned spruce root weaver and was born in Old Masset, Haida Gwaii into the Raven moiety, Yahgu’7laanaas. Isabel comes from an unbroken line of Haida weavers on both sides of her family: her mother, Primrose Adams is a weaver along with her grandmother Florence Edenshaw Davidson and great grandmother, Isabella Edenshaw, a well-known weaver of fine baskets and hats from the late 1800’s. Isabel first learned to weave from her paternal grandmother, Selina Peratrovich. She wove her first hat in 1982.
A Master Spruce Root Weaver
S’it kwuns (Isabel Rorick)
An Interview by Emma Bonnemaison
Isabel Rorick: My given name is Isabel Rorick, I was born in Prince Rupert, B.C. I grew up in Haida Gwaii in Old Masset. The first Haida name I was given was Ílsgide, a name that came from my maternal grandmother (Florence Edenshaw Davidson). The second name I was given is Git xuv nang, who was given to me by my paternal grandmother (Selina Peratrovich), and was the name of her grandmother. The third name I was given was Si’tkwuns, meaning “Red Moon.” It was one of my great grandmother’s names, Isabella Edenshaw, who I was named after. I was born in 1955.
Emma Bonnemaison: Isabel, when did you start to weave spruce root?
IR: I started weaving spruce root in 1976 when my oldest son was about a year old. When he was three years old, my husband gave me some money to go weave with Nonny Selina while he took care of our son. I went for a week and wove with her at her home in Alaska. I learned from her that she was one of the last active spruce root weavers of her generation. My aunt was also learning from her at the same time and so was my cousin, April Churchill. My Nonny Florence’s sisters learned how to weave from their mother Isabella Edenshaw, but Nonny Florence didn’t learn from her [Isabella Edenshaw]. She didn’t start weaving until the mid-50’s and she learned from Nonny Selina as well. Nonny Selina helped to continue our family legacy of an unbroken line of spruce-root weavers.
EB: So much talent in one family. What do you like most about your medium, spruce root?
IR: There are so many things. I love going into the forest, just talking about it makes me excited. Digging the roots, to finding a good spot especially if it’s easy pulling for long straight roots. If a root breaks, I take that piece and chew on it (laughs), I just love it. Also, cooking the roots, smelling and roasting them. They taste a little sweet when I hold them in my mouth when I split them. I also like watching patterns develop into the piece I’m weaving, especially if its something I’m doing for the first time, like a new pattern.
EB: Your art form relies on natural materials from the environment and the land in Haida Gwai, how does the natural environment inform your artistic practice?
IR: Where I gather roots is where my ancestors gathered roots. It is a continuation of generations of weaving. I’m connected with the sprits that are involved in the whole process, being a part of something that has been going on for so long.
EB: What are some of the designs you use in your weaving and how did you come to learn them?
IR: Some of them have been taught to me by Nonny Selina for a long time I only worked from the ones I learned from her and then started to work from the ones that Nonny Florence had. Later I went to museums and learned from copying pieces from museums. My youngest sister is a medicine woman who channels. If one of the galleries is having a show with a specific theme, I ask her what the ancestors think and what they want me to weave. In the last few years, I have gotten her to channel our ancestors to help me choose designs.
EB: Do you utilize any special techniques that are unique to your practice?
IR: I don’t use any kind of forms. Everything I weave is free-form. So my hats are shaped which ever way they want to be shaped.
EB: Is it more challenging to weave without a hat form?
IR: Yes it is. I use to sit with my right knee up, with my left foot resting on my knee and I would weave the hat on my knee. Now I have a stand that is about three feet tall with a disk on top that is the size of the top of the hat. It holds the hat in place. I can also change the disk on top from 15 inches to 2 inches in diameter depending on the size of the project.
EB: You have mentioned in the past that you wanted to be a carver. When and how did you realize that you wanted to be a weaver?
IR: When I was a teenager, I was 14 years old when the first totem pole was raised in 75 years [in Old Massett, Haida Gwaii]. A lot of people came for the pole raising and I met Frieda Dessie, and she showed me pictures of her carving. There was woman who carved argillite, which was really rare, not too many women were carvers. I saw in a brochure that Camosun College offered a course in carving so I thought maybe I’d go learn. Tony Hunt was the instructor. I went to Victoria and took his art course and carved some pieces in his studio. I did that for nine months.
When I went home, I worked on an archeological dig where I met my husband who was a neighbor to where we were digging. I never went back to Victoria, instead I made my life with him. When I finished my archeological dig that summer I went back to Alaska to visit with Nonny Selina and I wove a couple baskets. When ever she would visit, I would gather roots with her. In 1978, Robert Davidson was carving poles for a long house he was building and I really wanted to sign up but I didn’t because I knew my family didn’t want me to be a carver (laughs). So instead, I went to make tools because I thought maybe I wanted to carve at some time. Robert allowed me to make tools with himself and his apprentices, so I was there one day working on tools, sitting on the ground, and Nonny Selina came by. She came directly to me and she looked at me and said, “do you want to carve or do you want to weave? If you want to weave come with me right now.” I packed up my stuff and I went with her. I didn’t touch carving for a long time. After that I started weaving more and gathering roots for baskets. I started to visit her in Alaska as often as I could. She would come to Masset and we would gather roots together or cedar bark.
EB: There are so many artist on both sides of your family, including Nonny Selina her daughter Delores Churchill, your mother Primrose Adams, Nonny Florence and before her Isabella Edenshaw, what does it mean to you to be a part of such a strong line of female artists?
IR: Its is really important. Normally in our society, the knowledge was passed on from the mother’s side of the family, from mother to daughter. Because my great grandmother didn’t teach Nonny Florence, it was almost lost in our family. So it is really important that I learnt from Nonny Selina. I’ve been trying to pass it on to my nieces. I’m hoping that I get more interest from my family because it is really so important to continue the work. It really means a lot to me and I am really grateful that I was chosen to carry on this family tradition --it goes all the way back into our history.
EB: Was your motivation to learn weaving influenced by the need to uphold the tradition within your family?
IR: Not at first, I never really thought about it. I enjoyed it when I first started weaving and playing around with materials, when I was 13. I made a little plated basket and hat from watching my Nonny Selina. She would come to Masset and gather her materials. Watching her, I learned how to plate and twine. When I produced little pieces she really encouraged me to learn more from her. I found it interesting and enjoyed it but I never thought about continuing until much later, until I realized that there were few people weaving anymore.
EB: When was the first time that you saw spruce root weaving and how did it make you feel?
IR: The first hats I saw were berry-picking baskets and were used to pick salmon and huckleberries. I would watch people walking by our house towards the forest to gather berries. They would have them on their backs to gather berries in the forest. As a little kid, my sisters and I would visit the old weavers with Nonny Selina when she came to visit. They would show her [Nonny Selina] their work. They had little baskets for sale and Nonny would bring the baskets back to Alaska to sell. The first time I saw a spruce root hat, was in 1969, in a book called This is Haida by Anthony Carter. There were photographs of Haida hats and I was really amazed at how fine the spruce root weaving was because up until then the only hats I had seen were crudely plaited cedar bark hats, made by an old woman in our village. Around the same time, Robert [Davidson] had his totem pole raising in Massett [Haida Gwaii] in 1969, and he purchased two spruce root hats from an elder in Massett. They were from one of the last spruce root weavers, named Emily Thompson. His wife Susan was wearing it on the day of the pole raising. That was the first time I actually saw one. It was after that that Nonny Selina gave both my parents spruce-root hats.
EB: How did it make you feel seeing a spruce root hat being worn in such a momentous ceremony, the first pole raising in generations?
IR: Yes, it was really amazing. I had never seen hats worn before.
EB: Robert Davidson has said, “You can’t fake weaving.” What do you think he means by that?
IR: (Laughs) He’s right, you can’t. It’s either something you can do or you can’t. It takes a lot of discipline to get to a point where it looks really beautiful. From gathering the roots properly, to cooking them in the fire properly, to learning how to split, to weaving. The whole process is time consuming and takes a lot of work to become a good weaver. You can’t fake it. You can’t go out and just purchase the materials. You have to go right to the source and create the whole thing yourself.
EB: As a weaver, you are producing basketry for different audiences and for different purposes. Is there a difference between making a piece for a private collection, for a museum, or for a ceremony in the community?
IR: I say personal prayers for each piece as I work through the whole project, if it’s a hat or a basket. I’ll say special prayers for the person who will be wearing it for a dance, ceremony or a community event, or special prayers for a basket that will be used to gather food.
EB: How does it feel to have your weaving worn for ceremonial uses?
IR: It feels good to see a piece come alive when it’s danced. It is a whole different feeling than seeing a hat sitting in a case in someone’s home. The pieces carry energy even after the owner of the weaving is long gone. I’ve been to museums with my sister and other family and we had each of them channel information from each piece. They could pick up information from the original weaver. We went to the Anthropology Museum (UBC Museum of Anthropology) a couple years ago with my niece, daughter in law and distant relatives. Each woman was able to channel what she felt about each piece accurately. So I think about this when I am weaving pieces too, I try to keep my thoughts positive.
I have other stories about pieces. I have replicated weaving from old pieces where the makers energy has come through me. The same things that happened to the maker, happen to me. I replicated a hat from my great grandmother, Isabella Edenshaw. I was having a really hard time with the hat. I pulled too tight on the two main weaving roots and it snapped two rows of weaving that I had completed. Instead of taking the two rows out, I patched it with a needle. I was never very happy with it. Each row took over two hours to complete, so I spliced it instead of taking the two rows out. I picked at it, took it apart, but it was never right.
Finally, I made such a mess of it, I was 36 rows into it and I ended up taking the whole thing apart, which was over two weeks worth of work. I had a deadline for the hat. I usually try and say prayers and clear the hat before I ship it off. I didn’t do that because I was so tired. The opening of the show was about week later and I went to the opening with my sister. I asked my sister to be there to help clear the hat and say prayers. We went to see the hat and before my sister touched it, she burst into tears, uncontrollably. She couldn’t even speak. The ancestors were coming through really strong. Through my sister chanelling we found out that my great grandmother was working on the hat during a really intense time. There was some sort of intensity with the pattern she was working on, the dragon fly. She was weaving the pattern to keep her mind off of all the loss that was going on around her. Some sort of sickness her people were dying from. Because of all the loss around her and to keep her mind off it, she was working on this hat. My sister was feeling her tears, so she was crying really hard. She explained why my great grandmother was having trouble with this hat, because she was having such a hard time with everything that was going on around her. The place where I snapped the two rows, happened to her [Isabella Edenshaw]. My great grandmother told me that my hat is a strong healing hat, not just for our family but for the Haida nation.
EB: Do you hope that your weaving will be a source of guidance and inspiration for future weavers down the line?
IR: Yes, definitely.
EB: Many consider spruce root weaving to be one of the finest forms of Haida art. Despite this, there is reluctance from the wider art world to accept weaving as fine art. What can you say on this?
IR: It has always bothered me that people don’t consider this art. A man, I won’t mention his name once said, “weaving is not art, it is women’s work.” This is coming from a well-known carver. It’s tough. I had a hard time selling my work when I first started trying to sell to galleries. It was really difficult because they believed that there was no such thing as Haida weavers anymore. It took a long time to get recognized as a weaver. It was really difficult at first. There were only a few people who considered it art.
EB: Obviously things are changing but there still seems to be a bias at play. I’ve come across this unfortunate perspective, the idea that weaving belongs in a separate category than ‘fine art’. I think if anything, weaving, works beyond these restrictive categories.
IR: Still, people don’t really know much about weaving. With different exhibits, they are always focused on the male art, the carving, and they don’t recognize the weaving as important as the carving. Even in the Edenshaw show right now [Charles Edenshaw, Vancouver Art Gallery], the weaving isn’t appreciated and is hardly even mentioned throughout the exhibit. Yet, it is such an important part of the whole Haida system. Weaving was very important for not just the ceremony, but for the food gathering, the regalia, the clothing, and culture.
EB: It must be frustrating to encounter individuals who think weaving is not art or that it has “disappeared” and no longer exists. The long legacy of masterful female art production in your family so beautifully dispels these myths.
IR: Nonny Selina, had lost a lot of her family around the big flu epidemic. She wanted to weave. Her grandmother in law was a weaver and she asked her to teach her and her grandmother said ‘no’, it was too much work. So she would take her spruce scraps and hide away and weave. Her grandmother found her weaving one day and asked her what was wrong. Nonny Selina said that she was having trouble weaving. Her grandmother in law finally taught her how to weave spruce root. And that is how she learned. Normally it is passed down through the mother. So, she broke tradition way back when and taught Nonny Selina who was from the opposite clan. Same with me, I learned from Nonny Selina, as did my Nonny Florence and my mother. We all learned from her.
EB: Nonny Selina's grandmother in law was reluctant to teach her because knowledge is traditionally passed down matrilineally. How are you planning on passing down weaving knowledge?
IR: These days, I think I’m leaning towards teaching young Haida women. Not necessarily relatives. Because they’re aren’t many people weaving spruce root. I’ve been doing it for so long and have learned from some of the last great masters of the old, old way. Nonny Selina was teaching people [outside of her matrilineal line] because she knew that she was one of the last. Nonny was teaching classes in Alaska to anyone who wanted to learn. I was trying to keep weaving within the family, but I have reached the point now that I really need to pass on the knowledge.
EB: Do you have a way of signing your hats?
IR: Around 1990 I decided I better find a way to sign my hats so people would know whose work it was. I was looking through some old hat photographs from the Provincial Museum which is now the Royal British Columbian Museum and I found a hat that used concentric circles. My identification is three concentric circles woven in skip-stitch, each circle represents one of my three sons.
I’ve been working all these years, learning. I learned whatever I could from Nonny Selina, museums, learned from looking at all the different pieces. I keep records of every piece I learn and I have made. In the past 5-6 years I have been cataloguing everything. What ever I weave each day, I record it and I have folders on all the different hats and baskets I have made over the years. I put all my patterns on graph paper and I write down how many stitches each round. I keep pretty good records of where I sell them. I also number all my pieces and I know how many hats and baskets I’ve made. I’ve made probably over 300 baskets and over 300 hats. And that is all sizes.
EB: Do you have any advice for young Haida women who would like to start weaving?
IR: I’m looking for someone who is truly in their heart interested in weaving. You really have to want to do it. You do it because you truly love to do it, not because you think you can get rich on it because, really [laughs] you’re not. I would recommend that they go to museums. Some people don’t like museums because a lot of their collection was taken from old village sites. But, I’m grateful that they have these collections because they are such a wealth of information. There is so much that you can learn from just the act of looking. It is really important that they look at pieces in museums. Also, go into the forest and connect with the trees and the spirits, and fire.
EB: Where would you like to see you art go from here?
IR: I’d like to have someone to pass it onto. Somebody to appreciate it as much as I do. I would like to see a lot of it danced and shown in museums and galleries and private collections. I want to see the art continue. It would be nice to have a lot more people interested in it.