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.

 

Louis Riel’s ill-fated Ottawa journey

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 Anna Heffernan

During his lifetime, Louis David Riel was a controversial figure—a leader of two uprisings, regarded as either a hero or a traitor—but today he is recognized for his contributions to the development of the Métis Nation, the province of Manitoba, and Canada. In 1992, he was named a founder of Manitoba, and in 2016, he was recognized as the province’s first leader. Since 2008, the third Monday in February has been celebrated as Louis Riel Day in Manitoba.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a rich selection of materials relating to Louis Riel and the movements he led. The We Are Here: Sharing Stories project digitizes Indigenous-related materials in LAC’s collections. One of our priorities is to digitize the documentary legacy of Riel to make it more accessible to Métis Nation communities and researchers. While Riel is one of Canada’s most famous historical figures, some aspects of his life story are less known.

Most Canadians will recall that Louis Riel led the Red River Resistance in 1869–1870. At this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold their rights to Rupert’s Land, granted to them by the British Crown, to the Dominion of Canada. Métis Nation and First Nations peoples who traditionally inhabited the area did not recognize the Hudson’s Bay Company’s claim to the land, and therefore saw this as an illegitimate sale. In response to the sale of their homelands, Louis Riel and his colleagues formed a provisional government, pictured below, at Fort Garry.

A black-and-white photograph of 14 men, arranged in three rows (the front two rows sitting and the back row standing), with Louis Riel seated in the centre.

Louis Riel (centre) with the councillors of the provisional government in 1870 (a012854)

However, not everyone supported Riel’s provisional government. A group of Ontario settlers were captured by the provisional government’s forces while preparing to attack Fort Garry. One of the group, Thomas Scott, was executed for insubordination on March 4, 1870. Despite this incident, negotiations with Canada continued, and Riel successfully negotiated the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. When the negotiations were complete, a military expedition was sent from Ontario to enforce Canadian control over Manitoba. Many in Ontario viewed Riel as a traitor and murderer for the execution of Thomas Scott. Fearing for his life, Riel fled to St. Paul, Minnesota.

One of the less-well-known stories of Louis Riel’s life is his ill-fated journey to Ottawa. In 1873, Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba, and he was re-elected twice in 1874. Riel travelled to Ottawa to take his seat, but his foray into federal politics was to be short-lived. His attempt to sit in the House of Commons is documented in our collection by some interesting material. The first item is the test roll bearing his signature, pictured below, which every Member of Parliament signed upon taking the oath.

Page with six columns of signatures. Louis Riel’s signature is seen at bottom right.

Caption: Page from the House of Commons test roll signed by Louis Riel (e010771238)

Going to Ontario at this time was an enormous risk for Riel. After the execution of Thomas Scott, Ontarians reacted with anger—particularly Protestants, because Scott had been a member of the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization. In response, the premier of Ontario offered a $5,000 reward for Riel’s capture, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. In Parliament, a motion to expel Riel was brought by Mackenzie Bowell, an Orangeman from Ontario. The motion passed, and Riel would not return to the House of Commons, despite being re-elected a third time. The second piece of material relating to Riel’s journey to the capital is the photograph below. Before leaving hastily, Riel had his photograph taken in Ottawa, inscribed with the caption “Louis Riel, MP.”

Sepia-tone vignette photograph of Louis Riel facing the camera, with handwritten inscription underneath reading “Louis Riel, MP.”

Caption: Studio portrait taken in Ottawa after Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba (e003895129)

In 1875, Riel went into exile in the United States. From 1879, he lived in Montana Territory, where he married Marguerite Monet, dite Bellehumeur, in 1881. They had three children. He followed the buffalo hunt and worked as an agent, trader, woodcutter and later teacher. Riel returned to Canada, to Batoche in what is now Saskatchewan, in July 1884.

The test roll and the photograph of Riel in Ottawa are examples of how even some of the small items in our collection can illuminate moments in Canadian history. By researching and digitizing more of the Indigenous documentary heritage in our collections, we aim to share the stories not only of famous figures like Riel but also of many other Indigenous people in Canada.

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 content and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Anna Heffernan is an archivist/researcher for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

Inuit women and seals: a relationship like no other

By Julie Dobbin

Seals are a central part of life and an essential source of locally-harvested food for Inuit peoples. Many traditions, customs, beliefs and oral histories revolve around the seal. Inuit peoples were and still are in an important and direct relationship with this animal. Inuit hunters have great respect for the spirit of the seal, an animal that is so heavily relied upon. Every single part of the seal is used, as the harvesting must be sustainable, humane and respectful. Most importantly, cold and harsh arctic climates demand that people have the right shelter and clothing to keep warm and dry, and seals help meet this need through their skins, fur and oil.

Black-and-white photograph of an Inuit woman inside an igloo wearing a floral print parka and tending a seal oil lamp, with a young Inuit child wearing a fur parka.

Woman tending a seal-oil lamp inside an igloo, Western Arctic, probably Nunavut, 1949 (MIKAN 3202745)

Inuit women developed highly skilled techniques in order to treat and use seal in various ways throughout the seasons. They scraped the skins clean of blubber with an ulu (a traditional, women’s knife with a crescent-shaped blade) then stretched and dried them, as seen in this photograph of Taktu.

A colour photograph of an Inuit woman wearing a red cloth jacket, crouching on a rocky coastline and scraping fat from a seal skin with an ulu (a woman’s knife).

Taktu cleaning fat from a seal skin, Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut, summer 1960 (MIKAN 4324316)

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