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Publication: Becoming Sisters
© Jasmine Chew

blanketed power

native american women and the weaving tradition as a historical record

Brianna Beckford
Brianna Beckford
+November 16, 2022
As the tides turn weather-wise, many people are wearing thicker knits, longer coats, and woven hats to beat the chill. As Autumn transitions into a more frigid form, the importance of a comfortable, warm shield to the elements and greeter from a long cold day increases. Acrylic knee-high socks are available in stores while some swear by their mohair thermal wear. But the longest running saviour that many take for granted can be found in the comfort of a thick blanket.

Maybe for most, blankets are merely comfort. A necessity in bedrooms, an optional piece for officegoers. Many children see their blankets as a non-negotiable must-have. And although so many forms of blankets exist, none are as striking in their sheer magnitude this time of year when compared to a woven blanket.
FFU image
© Vanessa Roanhorse, Flikr
Weaving is not just women's work, although they are the group who we must thank for its long and continuing tradition. Weaving is storytelling; it's protest and politics, it's the act of giving love and blessings. Not often is the art itself maligned but its archival integrity most certainly is, particularly for the Native American women behind much of its creation. Imparting these stories is one thing, and oral tradition will never lose its majesty when framing ways histories have been kept alive. However, the Native American weaving tradition, led and continued by women across various nations, represents a ledger of the human condition

Blankets: Life, Death, and Identity

Blankets are rife with love and misery when viewed throughout Native American history. Similar to people across South America, West Asia, and the African diaspora, a blanket is one of the first major things that certifies a child's heritage and lineage. Being swaddled in a distinctly "Native" fabric, like the Pendleton blanket, is incredibly specific, but plays true to many realities of other people. As the first sign of being something else separate from another, blankets are latched onto by children. They are the major checkpoint in which a child is able to identify an 'other,' as they have been constantly attached to their birther.

Native nations and communities participate in blanket offerings quite often, actually. Whether to celebrate a graduation or to commemorate someone's life, the blanket is present for major events. Likewise, blankets are not just tools to comfort, but to harness an identity and rehumanize.

Subjected to the brutality of "reeducation," children taken from their Native nations and communities were often referred to as "blanket Indians." This term continued as a derogatory term to describe someone who had not "given up" their blanket- their lineage, their often last remnant of home.
quote [...] by taking their blankets and clothes away, and also metaphorically, for blankets were signifiers of lifeways and cultural practices.
For girls particularly, raised and educated in these "schools" on how to become housekeepers, "proper" women, blankets represented an extension of their heritage and sometimes life's work. To continue the weaving tradition was incredibly important; blankets for children carried their sense of security and safety, along with the hopes and prayers of their families for them.

As the maestros of the loom, Native women across many communities were at the forefront of providing these complex, multi-layered gifts that were blankets. Storytellers, healers, guides, caretakers imbued each weft with a new feeling for whoever would carry their weight. To be the person that gives the gift is a position of importance. To be the creator, the reason why, to be the person who granted the ability to- it is an entirely different scope of responsibility and power. (This further complicates and creates harrowing masturbations of meaning when considering how colonists gave smallpox infected blankets to Native peoples as a means of biological warfare, and something Native American textile artists comment on to this day.)

The patterns adorning these blankets were, thus, never frivolous but imparted with a guiding intention that forever dictates the trajectory of the blanket itself.

an economic history

Explorers of the West in the 1800s regaled many about the masterworks that were Navajo textiles. The craftsmanship of these blankets was immaculate, made densely to protect bodies from hard rain showers and likewise be erected for means of shade. Richly coloured and large, weaving became a cornerstone of Native American economies.

Not only did the weaving tradition provide a cornerstone for tracking Navajo settlements' richness and trade interactions, but for pinpointing changes and declines. Manufactured cloth overcame the worn woven skirts and dresses seen pre-1868, and from there on, radical change kept pushing people from wool, from weft, and into other means of monetary gain. Items like the Hudson's Bay Company Point Blanket began to secede Nativee nations' person craft; these, instead, supplemented what was purposefully oppressed and made scarce by the Americas and became iconic in trade.
quote Weavers initially devised the point system to indicate the intended size of a finished blanket. Since tariffs were paid by the blanket, blankets would be cut to size after import (a four-point blanket could be cut in half to make two two-point blankets, for instance) to avoid higher tariffs. And as with Pendleton blankets, Hudson's Bay Company blankets became essential and flexible objects for Indigenous peoples.
FFU image
© Ruth Hartnup, FLIKR
By the late 19th-century, blankets were direct currency made out to Native populations. Annuities as dye and cotton morphed. They took this form, directed to communities as payment for land titles.

The 1880s saw the transformation again of the blanket as less community-centric but a pure trading expense. Aesthetics had to change, the formatting shifting and morphing across various trade posts. So much so are these aesthetics apparent across communities, the name of these styles are contingent on the location of the trade post they were borne.

This transmutation of the blanket as body-wear, protective and inter-personal, to commerce is a fine flexibility achieved by its women weavers.

Strictly defining a blanket's purpose, unless its purpose is woven into it, could be chalked up to impossible. They are doors to a person's home and passages to hearts. Their provisions are bountiful, laying across horse hide and children alike, spreading throughout commercial channels-- and transforming further by other parties.
A blanket's strands are a catalogue of information. Names and thoughts unspoken are made into a rolodex that folds and unfurls in each bend of fiber. People have calmed down on dismissing "women's work" in our age. But still, blankets, shawls, sarapes- essential cultural objects, mundane and loved, are primitivized by the masses. Instead of allowing the patterns to speak for themselves, these blankets are acquired in tourist traps or by curators for a new "indigenous" collection. Their authenticity is stated with a prideful sheen by the person who carefully hangs it up, folds it to lay across their emerald green reclaimed 1960s couch.

These blankets shine with a legacy that goes beyond a hefty import fee. Their creators likewise are interwoven with stories, traditions, unspoken but felt with such a warmth that lays across the bearer of their presence.

These complex webs connect back to the original teacher of these weaving techniques. The Spider Man provided the loom and The Spider Woman who started it all, instructing how to knit the sky and earth together, how to harness the freeness of nature and let it dance across fingers. Lightning, air, dirt and dust come together; from this woman, others have learned and continue to learn, a never-ending story that chronicles the old and new across the country.
FFU image
© gabriela custódio da silva
To underline the above point, please read further on the histories of weaving and quilting presented by voices uplifting and supporting their own communities. Documentation is one thing, but who is better to understand the weight of the blanket than its owner or creator? It's already one thing that much of the information we can learn is provided by institutions and "collectors" of these objects.

The essay-writer is just as culpable of missteps and misunderstanding in disseminating this information, but this article was researched as best as possible.
Brianna Beckford
Brianna Beckford
essays

Brianna is a transdisciplinary artist based in Manchester, UK, whose work focuses on examining and s...

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