A symbol of great prestige in the nineteenth century, the Chilkat blanket was an important part of a chief’s regalia among the Tlingit and neighboring tribes of the Alaskan coast. The dance blanket, called nakheen (“fringe about the body”) by the Tlingit, was an indicator of rank and wealth. The term “blanket” is a misnomer; the nakheen was a ceremonial garment designed to be wrapped around the body. When the wearer danced, the blanket’s long fringe swayed with the movement.
The privilege of wearing a dance blanket was Inherited; both men and women were potential recipients. Aside from its function in ceremonial dance, the nakheen served as a gift in the potlatch, a complicated gift-giving ceremony usually performed by a chief to confirm his rank and privilege among his people. The acceptance of the blanket and other gifts by the guests was an acknowledgment of the host’s rights. The nakheen also could serve as a burial shroud.
Woven of durable mountain goat hair and tough cedar bark, the Chilkat blanket is a masterpiece of construction and design. The men created the designs; the women did the actual weaving. The design was painted onto a full-size wooden board, which the weaver used as a template. The format was standardized, consisting of a central totem and neighboring motifs in mirror image. The Art Museum’s blanket features the clan or house emblem of the diving killer whale, flanked by the crest of the raven, one of two Tlingit tribal subdivisions. The Tlingit weaver’s concept of totemic design is highly stylized: the makers dissected animal subjects into their basic parts (eyes, ears, teeth, fins) and then reconstructed them. They presented the subjects in both profile and frontal view.
The finished blanket was the result of a painstaking process. From the spinning of the yarn to the creation of the design, a finely woven blanket could take more than six months to complete.