Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
For readers who may only have heard such awful racist tropes as, "the Indian, clothed only in his breechcloth and blanket" this title may bring little else to mind. Nowadays it is less common for readers to have only heard such things, and some may even have read the brilliant piece by Métis scholar extraordinaire Chelsea Vowel, Blanket Statement for the online magazine CanadianArt. She sets blankets into Indigenous cultural context, including explaining the different meanings of hudson's bay blankets between the eastern and western regions of northern Turtle Island. Others may have spent some time working with their dictionary to learn that blankets are large pieces of fabric with a name in english that originally referred to undyed woollen cloth, which likely would have been off-white at the fanciest. Which can leave a person wondering why blankets are such a big deal in Indigenous cultures, especially in the northern regions of Turtle Island, quite apart from how important they are against the cold. Yet a quick web search will turn up multiple websites advertising hudson's bay, pendleton mills, and now myriad Indigenous companies making and selling brightly coloured, often woollen blankets. A bit of perspective can be acquired by digging around in the image results for european clothing, trying to start from around say, 1200 to the present. You see, both clothing and blankets (both when they serve as clothing and when they don't) are meaningful, presenting and reiterating messages to anyone who sees them. In the case of blankets in Indigenous cultures, especially those I have some familiarity with on northern Turtle Island, they say far more than non-Indigenous people appreciate.
Photograph of part of a hudson's bay blanket taken by Danielle Scott via wikimedia commons
, march 2011
The earlier version of this piece accidentally made it sound like there were no woven blankets in northern Turtle Island until trade contact was established with europeans. This is not true of course. The introduction of mass-produced european blankets impacted a pre-existing system of blanket production, decoration, and symbolism that was barely recognized let alone understood. When Indigenous-made blankets satisfied the orientalist criteria of european collectors fur traders were happy to trade as little as they could get away with for those items, while turning up their noses at what they perceived as the degraded uses of european-sourced cotton and wool examples. But then, the europeans didn't seem to think all that highly of their own blankets or many of their own trade goods, except for guns.
Among the most well-known woven blankets today are those made by the Indigenous Nations of the northwest coast of Turtle Island. Fibres might be gathered from specially bred dogs or goats, and especially worked and twisted from cedar bark to make what are widely referred to as "Chilkat blankets." They are beautiful, representing many hours of gathering, preparation, and weaving. In his 2008 book, Being and Place Among the Tlingit, Thomas F. Thornton briefly discusses a famous example, the Tlingit at.óow of the Kiks.ádi clan called the Herring Rock Robe, Yaaw Teiyí Naaxein. This robe recounts an important story from the history of the Kiks.ádi clan, and when worn in proper ritual context by a member of the Kiks.ádi clan, "integrates personhood into place and place into personhood in a way that Tlingits still celebrate." In other words, far from a "mere" blanket or robe, Yaaw Teiyí Naaxein is an example of a powerful, four-dimensional document that ties together multiple generations of people with a key place deep into the past and far into the future.
When we apply an understanding of blankets as not merely garments but documents and ceremonial regalia, the often mentioned but rarely much discussed buffalo robe can't be passed over so easily anymore. I lived for many years in the lands of the Blackfoot Nation, and had to read one monograph by Clark Wissler, an anthropologist who gathered data from several Plains First Nations but is best known in canada for what he wrote about the Blackfoot. The monograph in question wasn't too bad considering the time it was written, although even today there are several "translations" of songs that strike me as so mystifying that I wonder if the Elders were pulling his leg. In any case, the reader will come away from the monograph firmly convinced that the Blackfoot are buffalo people. Even better is to visit Niitsitapiisini online or in person at the glenbow museum in calgary. The buffalo provided food, clothing, shelter, tools, even fuel. These are perhaps the least of their gifts, because the buffalo also gave ceremony and taught the Blackfoot how to live together, and while they were at it, they taught other First Nations as well, bringing many of them together as allies. A buffalo robe was and isn't just a wonderfully warm item to have in a bitter plains winter. It also represented – and represents – a longterm relationship between the Blackfoot and the buffalo who provided so much.