Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Indian Blankets



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



In the popular mind the North American Indian is everywhere associated with the robe or the blanket. The former was the whole hide of a large mammal made soft and pliable by much dressing; or pelts of foxes, wolves, and such creatures were sewed together; or bird, rabbit, or other tender skins were cut into ribbons, which were twisted or woven. The latter were manufactured by basketry processes from wool, hair, fur, feathers, down, bark, cotton, etc., and had many and various functions. They were worn like a toga as protection from the weather, and, in the best examples, were conspicuous in wedding and other ceremonies; in the night they were both bed and covering; for the home they served for hangings, partitions, doors, awnings, or sunshades; the women dried fruit on them, made vehicles and cradles of them for their babies, and receptacles for a thousand things and burdens; they even then exhausted their patience and skill upon them, producing their forest art work in weaving and embroidery; finally, the blanket became a standard of value and a primitive mechanism of commerce.


In S. E., Alaska originated what is popularly called the Chilkat blanket - a marvel of spinning, weaving, fringing, and mythic designs. The apparatus for this seems inadequate. The woman hangs her warp of mountain goat's wool mixed with shredded cedar bast from a horizontal bar. The long ends are made into balls and covered with membrane to keep them clean. Weft is not even wound on a stick for shuttle, nor is there even the rudest harness or batten. The details of the great mythic design are carefully wrought in by the woman in twined weaving at the same time that a dainty lacework is produced on the selvage. The process ends with a long heavy fringe from the unused warp. Farther southward on the N. W. coast cedar bast finely shredded served for the weaving of soft blankets, which were neatly trimmed with fur.


The Nez Percés and other tribes in the Fraser-Columbia area were extremely skilful in producing a heavy and tastefully decorated blanket in twined weaving from mountain goat's hair with warp of vegetal fibre, and among the Atlantic and Pacific coast tribes generally soft barks, wild hemp, rabbit skins, the down of birds, and the plumes of feathers were put to the same use. Blankets of cords wound with feathers were produced, not only by the Pueblos and cliff-dwellers but quite extensively in the E. as well as in the N. W. These were all woven with the simplest possible apparatus and by purely aboriginal technical processes. They were the groundwork of great skill and taste and much mythology, and were decorated with strips of fur, fringes, tassels, pendants, beadwork, featherwork, and native money. After the advent of the whites the blanket leaped into sudden prominence with tribes that had no weaving and had previously worn robes, the preparation of which was most exhausting. The European was not slow in observing a widespread want and in supplying the demand. When furs became scarcer blankets were in greater demand everywhere as articles of trade and standards of value. In deed, in 1831 a home plant was established in Buffalo for the manufacture of what was called the Mackinaw blanket. The delegations visit­ing Washington during the 19th century wore this article conspicuously, and in our system of educating them, those tribes that were unwil­ling to adopt modern dress were called "blan­ket Indians." In art the drapery and colours have had a fascination for portrait painters, while in citizen's garments the red man ceases to be picturesque.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 64-65.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College