Tagaban speaks of Tlingit culture and art in Ellsworth Lecture

Ricky Tagaban is an Alaskan Native American from the Tlingit culture. He is also an artist, a weaver of traditional and contemporary Northwest Coast textiles, and he gave the 33rd annual Ellsworth Lecture on April 21 in a nearly-full Bentley 207 during Pride Week.

At first glance, Tagaban’s lecture seemed like a simple presentation of his art and his process—a bemusing subject given that the Ellsworth Lecture is typically a political science or history lecture. The more he spoke, however, the more it became clear: his art is political in itself and full of history.

“Weaving for me happens at the intersection of my gender identity and my native identity,” Tagaban said. Then he gave examples. “Because my weaving happens at that intersection of those parts of me, it made sense to do a body of work about that. So this blanket,” he said, referring to a picture on his PowerPoint, “is called “Sexual Sovereignty” … I took condoms, and I cut them lengthwise so they were twice as long, and I spun them on my thigh the way that I spin Chiliad warp. They look kind of like intestines… A lot of times, [some tribes will] take the long intestines from a sea lion or a seal, and they’ll separate those membranes and sew them together to make raincoats. It’s similar to this, but this is obviously manufactured.”

Another notable example was “Dominant Culture,” which featured, among other things a whip. “This is a whip that I wove. I took scraps of black leather and I cut them into spirals so they were super long and I spun that on my thigh to make my warp. I hung that on a weaving frame, and I wove this handle,” he said. “For this one, I was thinking about S&M and kink, and the big thing there is consent. With the colonization of all of North America, government agencies were forcing Indian children from their homes, putting them in boarding schools, where they were sexually abused and physically abused for speaking their native languages. So on and so forth. That’s a really dark history, and there wasn’t consent, so that’s what this was about.”

“Don’ts” was one of the most culturally charged pieces he spoke of during the 50-minute presentation. “I wrote down different taboos… and they were all specific to Chilkat weaving,” he said. “I would put that on a condom and inflate it. So there was a wall of blown up condoms that people would pop and then they would read, ‘Don’t spin wool while you’re pregnant.’ That’s a taboo that we have because we believe it could wrap the umbilical cord around your baby. Another taboo is when you’re weaving a circle, don’t leave the braids open. You have to close the circle in one sitting or a bad spirit could go into the circle, and you come back and close the braids, and the spirit is stuck there. Those are there for people’s well-being, for their protection, which is similar to condoms.”

He also talked directly about Tlingit culture, starting with the matrilineal succession of the culture, even speaking a little Tlingit and moving to the taboo against men weaving. Tagaban’s mentor, Clarissa Rizal, reached out to him because he identifies as both male and female, a state he calls “two-spirited,” allowing him to study chilkat weaving.

“Traditional art and contemporary art… People have tried to make them exclusive, but I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said, and that explained his use of non-traditional materials. He makes cultural regalia, but also commercial products, like woven earrings. Towards the end of his presentation, he spoke frequently of his commercial art, derailing from the lecture’s purpose.

However, Tagaban’s lecture as a whole was enlightening.