First Nations’ blanket traditions through time

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour

For First Nations people, a blanket holds deep meaning and traditions linked to culture, birth, life and death. It can represent survival and beliefs that transcend time and place. Blankets also have a dark history as they were sometimes used to decimate First Nations populations. In 1763, for example, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, leader of the British army, suggested introducing smallpox by giving infected blankets to the First Nations people they were fighting.

Before the arrival of woven and industrial materials, First Nations made blankets with what nature supplied. Animal skins were used as blankets, especially those from larger animals like deer, elk, bear, caribou, seal, moose and buffalo. It took several days and hard work to hunt, prepare and tan a pelt. The animal’s fur or hair may be removed depending on how its skin was to be used. The tanned skin might also be decorated if materials were available.

A watercolour over pencil of two First Nations men in regalia standing in front of landed canoe and river.

Two [Anishinaabek (Odawa)] Chiefs Who with Others Lately Came Down from Michillimackinac Lake Huron to Have a Talk with Their Great Father The King or His Representative, ca. 1813–1820 (c114384k)

Pine pitch or spruce gum was sometimes applied to the outer layer of the skin to make it more waterproof. This made it ideal to cover dwellings such as a lean-to or tepee.

Watercolor grey wash over pencil of First Nations man sitting on log by a tepee with blanket near top opening, fire pit with kettle, and canoe landed on shore by river.

Sugar Island, North of Georgian Bay. Date unknown. (e000996344)

First Nations had their own weaving techniques, using tree bark or parts of fibrous plants, such as cattails. The Northwest Coast Chilkat, an important ceremonial and dance blanket of goat hair mixed with cedar bark, would have taken a year or longer to make.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman’s face draped by a bark blanket.

Nuu-chah-nult (Nootka) woman wearing cedar-bark blanket, 1916 (a039478)

When European settlers arrived, First Nations peoples were quick to adapt new trade goods to their lives. Artists who travelled on western and northern expeditions recorded the many ways blankets were used in their drawings. Some First Nations people used blankets as a coat or shawl. Hooded capote coats were made from trade blankets by joining block-shaped pieces with sinew.

Black-and-white photograph of man in Hudson Bay coat.

Cree Chief Pi-a-pot, ca. 1884. (c003863)

The most recognized trade blankets were the Hudson Bay Company blankets. These were first supplied and traded in 1779. Early photographs of First Nations gatherings on the Northwest Coast show trade blankets piled high to symbolize prosperity.

A coloured lithograph of First Nations man in capote/blanket coat, three women and a dog in winter scene.

First Nations man, women and baby in Lower Canada, 1848. (c041043k)

Button blankets were made of high-quality woollen trade blankets from British mills. These blankets were usually dark and were decorated with red crests that had symbolic meaning. Lines of mother-of-pearl or abalone shell buttons would frame the designs. Families and communities would use button blankets in both ceremony and dance.

A black-and-white photograph of First Nations man wrapped in button blanket and headpiece.

Haida button blanket worn by Tom Price, ca. 1910 (a060009)

Black-and-white photograph of First Nations woman on horse in front of tepee.

First Nations Plains woman on horseback, ca. 1920–1930 (a041367)

First Nations peoples still use blankets to practice their traditions and hold the blankets in high regard. Star quilts are designed by the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota peoples. It is believed that when you are wrapped in a star quilt, your ancestors are amongst you and with you. Blankets are given at weddings and upon the birth of a child. They are also given to recognize elders and those involved in a worthy endeavour.

Some blankets used at pow-wows are changed into shawls by adding satin appliqués and ribbons. First Nations peoples’ use of blankets is multidimensional, shaped by their experiences, and can be passed to future generations.

Explore more images of blankets by searching Library and Archives Canada’s photograph and art collection.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour is a project archivist in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.

 

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