Textile Arts of the Pacific Northwest

Weavings and blankets from the collection at the Museum of Vancouver

By Museum of Vancouver

Museum of Vancouver

Chilkat robe, Tlingit (Lates 1800s) by Unknown WeaverMuseum of Vancouver

The Pacific Northwest is a culturally complex area that is home to many distinctive nations and tribes in both Canada and the US. There are many distinctive styles of ceremonial regalia from this region in the collection at the Museum of Vancouver. This selection showcases the Chilkat weaving of the North Coast, Button Blankets of the Central and Northern Coast, and the Salish Wool Weaving of the Central and South Coast.

Button blanket, by Marion Wilson, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (First half of 1900s) by Marion WilsonMuseum of Vancouver

Ceremonial items, like the dance blankets and robes shown here, were frequently confiscated during the Potlatch ban - an amendment to Canada's Indian Act that was in effect from 1850-1951. The Potlatch Ban prevented Indigenous peoples in Canada from practicing non-Christian ceremonies and from gathering in large numbers.

Under this law, regalia and other ceremonial belongings could be confiscated by Indian Agents or police, and participating community members imprisoned. Despite these stringent efforts at forced assimilation, each of these textile traditions is actively practiced today.

This speaks to the integrity and resilience of these Indigenous communities and their cultural traditions.

Chilkat robe, Tlingit (Lates 1800s) by Unknown WeaverMuseum of Vancouver

This Chilkat Robe from northern British Columbia features the design known as Diving Whale. This is the most prevalent design used in Chilkat weaving. However, this blanket has one unusual feature - the spirit face, located above the whale’s head in the center of the blanket, is outlined in blue rather than yellow which is more typical with this design.

Chilkat Robe, possibly Tlingit (Late 1800s to early 1900s) by Unknown WeaverMuseum of Vancouver

Visiting community members have remarked on the uniqueness of this older Chilkat Robe, noting that the spirit face is smaller in size and inverted. The presence of supernatural imagery, such as hands, is also distinctive. Robes like this one were worn by people of very high standing, and the designs are layered with meaning.

Chilkat Robe, Northern Northwest Coast (pre 1860s) by Unknown WeaverMuseum of Vancouver

A Chilkat Robe featuring the Diving Whale design. This robe features all indigenous dyes, which suggests it was made prior to 1860.

Chilkat Robe, Tlingit (pre 1945) by Unknown WeaverMuseum of Vancouver

This Chilkat Robe, made by an unknown Tlingit weaver from Southern Alaska, features the Diving Whale design. The head of the whale is placed at the bottom of the blanket near the fringe. This blanket is unusual because it is missing its side fringe - an element that is very important for ceremony. This may indicate that this piece was made as a display piece for sale.

Button blanket, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (circa 1870 to 1919) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Vancouver

Button blankets are ceremonial garments made from wool trade blankets that have been adorned with colourful applique and mother of pearl buttons. The crests and designs distinguish the families who make and wear them. Although this previous owner of this blanket is unknown, it shares many similarities to a blanket worn by Lucy (Homiskanis) Hunt, of Kwaguʼł, in the late 1800s.

Button blanket, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (pre 1915) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Vancouver

This button blanket is thought to have originated on northern Vancouver Island. It was acquired from William Cadwallader, a grandson of the last Hudson's Bay factor at Fort Rupert, at Port Hardy. The central design on this blanket resembles a sacred cedar bark regalia known as Tłagakwaxawa'yi worn by members of the Hamatsa, a Secret Society.

Button blanket, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (pre 1915) by Unknown MakerMuseum of Vancouver

This button blanket is thought to have originated on northern Vancouver Island. It was acquired from William Cadwallader, a grandson of the last Hudson's Bay factor at Fort Rupert, at Port Hardy. Frequently these blankets feature elaborate crests and adornments. It is probable that piece was a work in progress, acquired before it was completed.

Button blanket, by Mrs. Seaweed, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (circa 1929) by Mrs. Joe SeaweedMuseum of Vancouver

The thunderbird is one of four ancestors of the Kwagu’l people of Fort Rupert. (The others are Seagull, Sun and Grizzly bear). On this blanket, thunderbird is surrounded by coppers – a symbol of wealth amongst the Kwakwaka’wakw, and for several other Northwest Coast peoples.

Button blanket, by Marion Wilson, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (First half of 1900s) by Marion WilsonMuseum of Vancouver

This blanket made by Marion Wilson was acquired by the museum in 1964. Descendents were able to identify Marion Wilson as the maker using family photos, which also showed their great aunt wearing this blanket for ceremony. Reconnecting with this work has inspired family members to recreate this ceremonial garment for contemporary use.

Latimer button blanket, by Minnie Latimer, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (1870 - 1959) by Minnie LatimerMuseum of Vancouver

This blanket was last worn in 1959 for "Indian Days," a celebration to welcome Queen Elizabeth to the city of Nanaimo during a royal visit to Canada. The blanket is known as the Latimer Blanket, because the donor's grandmother Minnie Latimer is its presumed maker. It was made from a Hudson’s Bay Company trade blanket and is adorned with a design of ceremonial coppers.

Mountain goat hair blanket (circa 1900 to 1920) by Unknown WeaverMuseum of Vancouver

Mountain goat hair is precious and is often combined with other fibers when spun into wool for weaving ceremonial blankets like this one. These blankets are worn as symbols of a person’s status, and the designs belong to specific people or families. Mountain goat hair blankets, or pieces of them, were once given away when people were called to witness important events for ceremony. Today, it is more difficult for weavers to obtain this type of wool.

In 2018, fibre samples from this blanket were studied at the University of Victoria BioImaging facility. The yarn contained mountain goat and sheep’s wool, feather down, and unknown plant fibres – possibly alkali treated milkweed, cedar, cotton or stinging nettle.

Twill weave blanket (pre 1915) by Unknown WeaverMuseum of Vancouver

Twill weave is one of the ways that Salish weavers create pattern in ceremonial blankets. This technique can be used to create herringbone or diamond patterns in the wool. Red and black fabric strips have also been woven into this blanket. These design elements combine to distinguish the person for whom this blanket was made.

Woman's Dance Robe, previously owned by Lixwelut (1910/1935) by Mary Agnes Capilano (?) and Lixwelut (?)Museum of Vancouver

This woman’s dance robe is woven from a blend of fibres, including mountain goat wool, sheep’s wool, and cotton. It was once owned, and possibly made, by Lixwelut whose English name was Mary Agnes Capilano. Artist Mildred Valley Thornton donated this weaving to the museum in 1944, several years after the death of Lixwelut.

Sheep wool blanket, woven by Mrs. Walter Joseph, Songhees (1940s) by Mrs. Walter JosephMuseum of Vancouver

This blanket was made for sale by the BC Indian Arts and Welfare Society. It was purchased directly from the Chairman responsible for Handicraft Marketing at conference held at the University of British Columbia in 1948. It is one of two weavings woven by Mrs. Joseph of the Songhees Nation after she and her husband visited the Royal BC Museum in Victoria to study collections for this purpose.

Mountain goat hair blanket (1850/1899) by Unknown WeaverMuseum of Vancouver

Woven from mountain goat hair (and possibly hair from the extinct Salish wool dog), this blanket was likely made in the mid to late 1800s. It was acquired in April 1948 by Mrs. Stanley, the Lieutenant Governor’s wife, at an Arts and Welfare Society Conference held at the University of British Columbia.

During the mid-twentieth century an Indian Arts and Welfare movement emerged in the province of British Columbia, which lobbied for increased handicraft production as an economic activity for indigenous peoples across Canada. This led some Indian Residential Schools to adopt certain handicrafts as part of their curriculum – creating souvenir items for the emerging tourism industry.

Salish Weavers Guild blanket, by Martha James (1982) by Martha JamesMuseum of Vancouver

Salish weaving underwent a decline during the years of the Potlatch Ban but re-emerged in the 1960s in the Fraser Valley area with the establishment of a Salish Weaver’s Guild. Weavers from several Sto:lo communities would come together to dye and spin wool, and to learn the ancient art of weaving. A special label identified their work, which they shipped to local and international clients. In the 1980s, the Guild shared their teachings with the members of the Musqueam community contributing to a revival in the Vancouver area.

"Cedar Gathering," Woman's Ceremonial Robe, by Chief Janice George, Chief Janice George (Chepximiya Siyam'), 2018, From the collection of: Museum of Vancouver
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A second Vancouver-based revival occurred in the Squamish community, in 2003, with the establishment of L’hen Awtxw Weaving House to share teachings with a new generation of students. Salish weavings made by its founders, Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph, were acquired for the MOV collection in 2018 at a charity auction for Squamish language preservation. The couple has taken their teachings full circle, visiting many communities including: Sechelt, Chemainus Bay, Tla amin, Tsleil-Waututh and back to Lummi and Sto:lo - where the first revivals began.

"Reflections of Santa Fe," Squamish shoulder wrap, by Buddy Joseph, Buddy Joseph (Skwetsimeltxw), 2018, From the collection of: Museum of Vancouver
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Credits: Story

Text by Sharon Fortney, Curator of Indigenous Collections and Engagement, Museum of Vancouver

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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