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Woven with love: Tsleil-Waututh Nation artist's robe in U.S. exhibit

Tsleil-Waututh Nation artist Caitlin Aleck has only been weaving for three years and her latest work is set to be displayed at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Wash.

When Caitlin Aleck weaves, she feels connected to her Tsleil-Waututh ancestors.

Her designs aren’t necessarily planned, they just come to her. They come from the heart.

She’s only been weaving for a few years, but her passion for the traditional craft and guidance from her mentor, Coast Salish weaver Angela George, has seen her advance quickly in her work.

Her latest piece, a traditional robe, will soon be on show among Master Weavers and accomplished artists at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Wash., as part of Coast Salish artist Dan Friday’s Future Artifacts exhibition. As a way to connect to his heritage, Friday has been studying Coast Salish history and artifacts and has used his knowledge to create a number of glass pieces that will be on display.

“It will be my way to document not only my family’s history, but the artwork of the Coast Salish people,” Friday said in a release.

He said the exhibition was also a great way to showcase the “vibrant works of Coast Salish artists working today.”

“Weavers, like many of the artists that are in this show, are not only where I get a huge amount of inspiration, but they are also teachers and stewards of our culture.”

For Aleck, who is among the chosen artists, weaving is a part of everyday life now. As well as working on her own projects, as a cultural teacher at Tsleil-Waututh Nation School, she also teaches weaving from kindergarten to Grade 12. 

Traditionally, Aleck said Coast Salish weavings were used to protect Elders, Chiefs, and people of importance.

“The significance of it is you're covering the person with love and respect and dignity, but also, back in the day, there were weavings that would cover whole smokehouse floors,” she said. “It’s raw power.”

'It comes from the heart'

When weaving a robe, she said it was important to have good thoughts and feelings because those vibes would be passed on to the person it is being gifted to.

One of the most important aspects of weaving is the designs and what they represent, continued Aleck.

“A lot of it, for me, comes from the heart,” she said.

“I didn't plan much of this design. In saying that, I was taught as a younger weaver that the loom is a portal to our ancestors. So, when I'm weaving, I'm making that connection with my ancestors.

“When you're really in tune with your work, things like this just come out. You just really have to open yourself up to what you're going to be working on.”

She said a lot of the designs of weaves have different interpretations.

“The focus around this exhibit is water and how it connects us,” she said.

While pointing to different elements of the robe, she explained that she created the triangles to represent the mountains and highlighted the different aspects of her weave portrayed “earth, water, and us.”

In line with the exhibit’s theme, she said the pattern came together to symbolize how “we're all connected all the time.”

“From here to Bellingham to up north, we're all connected,” she said.

Aleck had only been working on the weave for about two weeks at the time of the interview and was already three feet down.

“I warped up May 10 and haven’t stopped since,” she said.

The magnificent piece depicting the message of connectedness through water is now complete and ready to be shipped to Washington.

Inspired by her mentor 

The 27-year-old has spent the past three years apprenticing under George. 

George invited her to a weaving workshop she was conducting in Chilliwack back in the fall of 2018, and from there, Aleck was hooked.

“She’s always been a mentor to me, so I was quite excited to go,” Aleck said. “That night I made my first headband and I never stopped.”

Speaking highly of her mentor, Aleck said she wouldn’t be near as experienced as she has become in such a short period of time if it wasn’t for George.  

“George always has a way of encouraging our youth and all those around her,” Aleck said. “She included me in different workshops, to teach and to learn. Events would come up and she would call me and include me. She told me ‘don’t stop, keep weaving, wear that tabletop loom like a purse!’ and that’s been my motto ever since.”

Aleck’s passion for weaving continues to grow as she passes on her knowledge to the next generation.

“It’s really what keeps me going,” she said.

“I’m currently pregnant, so I weave with my next generation weaver. I teach her while I weave, who we are, where we come from and explain to her why it’s such an important part of our history and why we cannot let it die.”

She said she’d be forever grateful to George for igniting her love of weaving and for helping her to display her piece at Dan Friday’s exhibit.

“My weaving will be alongside Master Weavers and that gives me chills,” Aleck said.

The exhibit opens July 3 and will be on show until Oct. 10.

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.