Great Honor - Chilkat blanket

A small but very big trip to share with all of you: Last evening I was invited into the home of a neighbor, the son (age 74) of a chief (his mother, now deceased) of the Raven Clan to view and touch her Chilkat robe-blanket which was near 100 years old. And with it I was shown a button blanket from the 1800s that carried authentic Russian buttons, several more contemporary dancing blankets, and a twined Sitka spurce root gathering basket which was at least a century old. James brought out a photograph of his mother as a 3 year old youngster wearing the dancing robe; it was child size. Her mother, then chief, stood beside her wearing her own Chilkat robe. Behind them were the totems at the entrance to their lodge, carved by his grandfather, and a whaling harpoon. The warp in the child's robe had been spun with cedar as is typical of hip spun warps of Coastal weavers, and I could smell the lanolin still within its fibers. I was surprised by the somewhat bas relief of the raven image in the center, the result of the weaving method. The colors were natural white, black; and it appeared that Oregon grape had been used for the yellow. He did not know what was the source of the aquamarine blue; it was so clear and even that I wondered if it may have been synthetic sourced way back then. I had taken along vinyl gloves (to put over my hands that were stained from the day's gardening) in the event I was invited to handle the robe, which I was. It was such an honor to have had this experience. I gave James an eagle feather a molting eagle had dropped to me on the beach last spring. (It is against the law to possess an eagle feather unless you are authorized (by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I think). James will give it to someone in one of his people's ceremonies.) Jim is trying to figure out what to do with these artifacts to protect them, both in storage and for posterity. He is afraid to put them in a museum because, as he says, these things get "lost" in museums. You may be aware of the theft of First Nations artifacts that occurs. The child's dancing blanket has been appraised by the Smithsonian at a quarter of a million. But James and his wife want people to be able to see and enjoy the beauty and culture of his people. So we shall see what they decide. I will forward a photo to Weavolution that James took of the child's dancing blanket for me, if I can figure out how to transmit photos.


Posted on Wed, 01/29/2014 - 11:06

WOW! I have longed admired the Chilkat Dancing Blankets. We have one here in Cincinnati on permanent display but my Dad lives in British Columbia, and the Provincial Museum has a couple as I recall.
What a privilege for you.
I certainly hope they can find a reputable home for these treasures, where they can be viewed, enjoyed and studied.

There is a tutorial on posting pictures under help, I believe. If you still have problems let us know where you're stuck and I'll try to help.
Thanks for sharing.

Posted on Wed, 01/29/2014 - 12:22

I was wondering how there could be lanolin in cedar fibre. I'm thinking it was the sweet smell of western red cedar you smelt. :) I think there are a number of weavings of coastal natives (Haida especially) in a museum in NYC (Natural History maybe). I was there one time many moons ago. I also lived in Haida Guaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) off the BC coast.

I think these folks have offered you a very unique opertunity and am glad you are sharing it with us. Waiting for those photos. :)

As far as eagles go, the city of Prince Rupert had a photo contest one time for the cover of their phone book. The winning photos was one of about 30 eagles perched in a 200 foot tall Sitka spruce tree. :) You could go to the town dump and see 100 eagles any time.

Posted on Thu, 01/30/2014 - 14:01

ReedGuy, these dancing robes usually had a warp of cedar "withies" and a weft of wool. The structure is weft twining, which makes for wonderfully-defined patterning.

Dakota, this is fabulous -- you are a lucky weaver, indeed!  What an amazing treat, to see and touch such a treasure, and to spend time with the son of the one who wore it.  And a button blanket, to boot!

Very, very cool.  Thank you for telling us about this, and I'm looking forward to photos, too!


Posted on Thu, 01/30/2014 - 14:08

Where did they get the wool, they were not sheep herders? They must have been more modern garments with materials from European trade. Modern being within the last 150-200 years. In Canada, the fur trade brought natives the  wool point blanket by the Hudson's Bay Co. From which they could even make heavy coats for winter.

Posted on Thu, 01/30/2014 - 14:22

Okay, it's been a few years (I went through a phase of reading everything I could find about the Chilkat robes -- which sadly isn't a lot), but I think the wool in the traditional weavings was mountain goat wool, picked up from bushes and rocks.


Posted on Thu, 01/30/2014 - 14:23

Wool was gathered from mountain sheep. Many aboriginal peoples also had dogs and used their hair.

Cheryl Samuels researched the textiles of the coastal peoples and wrote a couple of books. There is also a book on Salish weaving. Author was Paua something.


Posted on Thu, 01/30/2014 - 16:45

Well that certainly makes sense if your in the interior or rocky mountains, not the coast range though where red cedar grows mostly (and Prince George region where it grows as interior red cedar). What about mountain goats? They are coastal, seen them, but they were high up in the cliffs where a man could barely crawl. But I don't know where these people's exact home range was or where they traded and moved about. So I suppose they could certainly obtain mountain sheep wool from others and so on. I would think it would have to be from kills. Going around and trying to find it on bushes would be a lost cause, you'd be frozen solid before you had enough wool in 20 years. I would suggets going out there and trying it for oneself for the full realization. ;) I find moose or bear hair on bushes around here, but you'd never find enough to make anything worth the effort. ;D

Posted on Thu, 01/30/2014 - 17:11

Just this year we had a young man join the guild in order to spin the wool from mountain sheep he had gathered during his travels in the northern wilderness. He had gathered quite a lot from the bushes, no kills involved.

But yes, I am quite sure any animals killed would have had their pelts used for fibre as well as what was gathered. Mountain sheep and goats were used as meat and there was trading between the coastal and interior peoples.


Posted on Thu, 01/30/2014 - 19:53

According to The Chilkat Dancing Blanket by Cheryl Samuel, the Tlingit lived in the mountainous areas and hunted the goats.  The wool from three skins was needed for a blanket.  Also, animals with double coats like this shed them in the spring, and you can find large mats of wool in areas they travel in.  People traded all over the continent long before Europeans hit the scene, and I'm sure goat wool would have been a prized trading comodity.  This book has a lot of information on preparing the warp and weft, spinning, weaving, and great pictures.

Posted on Thu, 01/30/2014 - 21:59

BC is all mountains, even the Islands, I've climbed through a lot of them. ;) But yes natives traded, and sometimes they even took slaves as the did the Haida. So you had to have good firendly neighbors for other things. :) Still hard to fathom gathering wool off bushes, much more efficient and worth while to take a kill, that way they get to eat as well as weave. Excellent conversation btw. :) I wonder about buffalo for the prairie folk? I know on PEI someone raises them for the wool.

Posted on Fri, 01/31/2014 - 16:18

Finding this thread interesting, I just got out my copy of "Chilkat Dancing Blanket" by Cheryl Samuels - it answers the above questions with even a cursory read. The book is still available as a $25.95 paperback from U of OK press as well as libraries.

Rather than posing wild guesses, take a look at the book - shows everything from museum pieces to spinning techniques to weaving(twining) techniques.

Posted on Fri, 01/31/2014 - 21:50

Depends a lot to on how well researched book writers are. A good many books about history and even TV programs involves a lot of conjecture (guesses if you will) of things long long ago. Depending on how many will follow your line of thinking, will determine if it's beleiveable. Whether facts or fancy. Do not forget, that entities such as the Hudson's Bay Co have been in exhistance since 1640. That means a mighty long time to distort history. This company had territory from Labrador to Hawaii, 10 x the size of the Holy Roman empire.

Posted on Fri, 01/31/2014 - 21:41

The book is well researched by someone who actually pursues ravenstail weaving, writes with proper grammar and spelling, and gives thread by thread diagrams with the accurace of Margarete Hald in her books on old bog textiles. It most certainly qualifies as a first class resource on the subject.

It doesn't just spout off.

Posted on Fri, 01/31/2014 - 22:20

Sounds like it could be a good book alright on the weaving process. I'm sure it would make a very interesting read. :)

But often my hold up is when conjecture creeps into it about material gathering and sourcing. When you think about those times, one has to forget about Hollywood movie portrayals. Life was always a struggle. If you were not freezing from the cold, you were hungry for your next meal. And if you tried to live on your own you had a miserable short life. It was not like Grizzlie Adams TV programs. If you recall a few years ago, there was a much written about and recently a movie made of a recluse in the US who figured he could go it alone in the wilderness with no outside contacts. He did not fair too well, he was found starved to death.

Even Darwin had good grammar and spelling, but his ideas were not widely accepted and some later disproven or given alternative reasonings.

Posted on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 00:15

I've been interested in the Native peoples of North America for some time,and have done a lot of research.  Life in some areas is as you describe it, but the inhabitants of both East and West coasts had plentiful and easily gathered food and a mild climate, which allowed the development of art and social organization to a high degree.

Posted on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 01:32

This is true enough, but why divert attention to places where life is easier? Might as well talk about the jungles of Mexico. Have you ever lived in a  tent or a camp in the BC mountains, most of which have glaciers in parts of their range, a lot less now of course because they keep receding over time in some ranges. And 2-3 meters of very cold rain along the coast islands and mainland. Salmon do not run the rivers year around. What helped the Haida was permanent dwellings since they could fish and hunt all around them and ocean worthy dugout cedar canoes to travel long distances. It still had to be caught. And there is very little to eat in under those big cedars and spruce trees besides mushrooms and seasonal berries and very few root crops such as skunk cabbage and devil's club. There art was their buildings, ceremonial masks and robes, massive totems and canoes. Here in the maritimes we lived among the Maliseet for 500 years and there was no great works of art here except baskets, snow shoes and birch bark canoes. Stuff neaded to make life a little easier to take. One such canoe discovered and brought back from a museum in Ireland, which is over 100 years old.

Posted on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 14:10

What an amazing experience that must have been.  My grandmother was a slightly crazy lady who moved to Vancouver BC in the 1930's (after running away from home, youngest of 13, in Scotland). She befriended the first nation people, and spent my grandfather's $$ purchasing baskets, hats, weavings, and carvings.  I grew up far away from her, but remember the magic of finding totem poles and interesting things like that in her basement.  After she passed, her collection was given to a museum.  The inventory indicates a chilkat blanket but when I went to the museum to see it, that one item was gone.  So sad.  Dakota, you are a very lucky person, and sadly, the fears of having the blanket donated and then stolen are real.  Thank you for telling us this story, and I'm hoping for a photograph.

Posted on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 14:51

The aboriginal peoples were living in North America rather successfully for something like 10,000 years before Europeans arrived on these shores with their pre conceived notions of what made a civilized society. Textiles are fragile and don't survive very well. But textiles were valued and produced long before the HBC arrived. Many hands make light work and ceremonial robes were woven, many now lost, in large part due to European interference. (Banning of the potlatches, etc.)

Cheryl Samuels is a very well regarded researcher of the textile arts of the coastal peoples on the west coast, which is where the Chilkat weaving took place. Before someone condemns her research, perhaps a close examination of her books might be in order?


Posted on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 18:17

I am not doubting the natives wove garments, never did doubt it. But the HBC had a profound impact on the natives and many lost their ways over generations of influence and became very dependant on the HBC, that is a fact. 500 years would be a long time for a garment to survive. And don't forget the influence from European religion. It is easy for things to get distorted, and then later trying to piece things together that are no longer in existance by theorizing, postulating or rationalizing.

I am not doubting these books have a lot of work put into them. But often times when you ask these native peoples what they think of a book on their history, the phrase "that's white man's history", is a recurring response. So it certainly makes one ponder. Governments to influence how history is told as well. There is always another version. :)