Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
From the northern edges of the boreal forest to northern Mexico, Indigenous nations make extensive use of a piece of equipment so commonplace and homely that it often goes completely unnoticed by other North Americans, unless it is part of the equipment for a public ritual. That piece of equipment is the blanket.
Ordinarily today blankets are thought of simply as a means to keep warm or to provide a pleasant surface to lay or sit on. Indigenous peoples in the americas use and have used blankets for many additional purposes. They could be used in ceremony, for bartering, for paying debts, as burial shrouds, and could be made into various articles. Brand new blankets may be made into capotes, a jacket much like a short frock coat, usually with beaded epaulettes. A preserved example of a capote made from a Hudson's Bay blanket is on display in the fur trade section of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. Worn out blankets might have their better sections made into smaller articles, from clothing and mitts to dolls for children.
Blankets were woven or made from bison hides to create the misnamed 'buffalo robes.' Archaeological evidence of both weaving and hide working goes back at least several thousand years, and the trade in these textiles appears to be as ancient, although in earlier times it may not have been as far reaching as it was much later. In view of their usefulness and the labour involved in making them, blankets were highly valued, and it didn't take long for europeans to join in with machine woven articles after they began trading in north america.
In canada the best known 'Indian' blankets are those produced by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), followed by the products of the Pendleton wool mills. The HBC's expensive cream coloured blankets with their coloured stripes at each end are a product so emblematic of the company their shopping bags were once printed so as to resemble them. They were equally expensive in the early days of the company, and so it was the plainer, single colour blankets with one or two narrow stripes at each end that were most common. The value of each blanket used to be indicated by the number of 'points' woven into its fabric, usually two to five grey or navy blue lines. Each point corresponded to one or more beaver pelts. The Pendleton blankets are historically more associated with the united states since they have been produced primarily in oregon. That said, they have grown in importance since the 1800s in canada since they are available in far more patterns and sizes than their HBC counterparts.
By the time of confederation, few if any woven blankets were being produced by Indigenous weavers or hide workers at all as they opted to trade for machine-made articles and the bison herds vanished. To be clear, they did not necessarily take this option by choice. Obviously the destruction of the bison would halt the production of bison robes, but less obviously the availability of time and materials for blanket making vanished as Indigenous people were cut off from supplies via imprisonment on reserves and poverty. This began to change significantly in the mid to late 1900s, when Indigenous people in general began a broader scale cultural and political resurgence than they had before. The Navajo and Hopi successfully preserved their hand weaving techniques and traditional designs for blankets and rugs from extinction, while Tlingit speakers have been working to re-establish the art of making Chilkat blankets. As a rule these five-sided, elaborately decorated blankets don't appear to have been as utilitarian in purpose as the more familiar four sided type. They were worn especially for dancing, and may be related in purpose to the shawls worn by many female traditional fancy dancers at powwows. Specially made blankets may be presented to honoured Indigenous leaders during ceremonies or wrapped around an Indigenous being sworn into a leadership role.
The Dakota and Lakota Nations took up european quilting techniques, and developed one of the most famous truly Indian blankets in north america: the star quilt. Each quilt design repeats the image of the sacred eight-pointed morning star of the Dakota-Lakota Nations. The basic idea proved so popular that it spread rapidly over the great plains. Such quilts are still not commonly mass produced, and as a result most of those existing are hand made and relatively rare.