Indian Blankets

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 finest 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 south ward on the N. W. coast cedar bast finely shredded served for the weaving of soft blankets, which were neatly trimmed with fur.

The Nez Percé and other tribes in the Fraser-Columbia area were extremely skillful in producing a heavy and tastefully decorated blanket in twined weaving from mountain goat’s hair with warp of vegetal fiber, 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, bead-work, 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. Indeed, 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 colors have had a fascination for portrait painters, while in citizen’s garments the red man ceases to be picturesque.

In the S. W. the coming of Spaniards had a still more romantic association with the blanket. Perhaps as early as the 16th century the Navaho, in affiliation with certain Pueblo tribes, received sheep and looms from the conquerors. These were the promise of all that is wrapped in the words “Navaho blanket.” The yarn for the finest was procured by unraveling the Spanish bayeta, a sort of baize, and the specimens from this material now command high prices. For coarser work the Navaho sheared their own sheep, washed the wool, colored it with their native dyes, and spun it on rude spindles consisting of a straight stick with a flat disk of wood for a fly wheel. This coarse and uneven yarn was set up in their regular but primitive loom, with harness for shifting the warp, a straight rod for shuttle, a fork of wood for adjusting the weft, and a separate batten of the same material for beating it home. Only the hands of the weaver managed all the parts of the operation with phenomenal patience and skill, producing those marvelous creations which are guarded among the most precious treasures of aboriginal workmanship. The popularity of this work proved its worst enemy. Through the influence of traders and greatly increased demands for blankets the art has deteriorated. Native products were imitated by machinery. To the Indians were brought modern dyes, cotton warp, factory yarns and worsted, and utterly depraved pat terns, in place of native wool, bayeta, and their own designs so full of pathos and beauty. At present a reformation in such matters is being encouraged, both by the Government and by benevolent organizations, for the purpose of restoring the old art. In this connection should be mentioned the interesting variety of effects produced in the Indian blankets by simple native contrivances. There are all the technical styles of native hand work superadded to the machine work of the loom, including coiled, twined, and braided technique. Two-faced fabrics are produced, having intricate patterns entirely different on the two sides. Different Pueblos had their fancies in blankets. Among these must not be overlooked the white cotton wedding blanket of the Hopi, ceremonially woven by the groom for his bride, afterward embroidered with symbolic designs, and at death wrapped about her body in preparation for the last rites. In the same tribe large embroidered cotton blankets are worn by woman impersonators in several ceremonies; also a small shoulder blanket in white, dark blue, and red, forming part of woman’s “full dress” as well as a ceremonial garment. From this list should not be omitted the great variety of Navaho products, commencing with the cheap and ubiquitous saddle paddings, personal wrappings, house furnishings, and ending in competitions with the world s artistry. There were also the dark embroidered and white embroidered blanket of Navaho legend. They also wove blankets with broad bars of white and black called “chief s pattern,” to be worn by the head-men. The Zuñi, too, wove a blanket for their priest-chiefs. But they, as well as the Hopi, had plenty of the serviceable kinds, of cotton and of wool, which they made into skirts and tunics; coarse kinds likewise for domestic use, robes of rabbit skin, and finer work for ceremony. The Pima and Maricopa have abandoned the art lately, but their congeners the Yaqui, Tarahumare, Mayo, and Opata weave characteristic styles.

Consult Boas in Rep. Nat. Mus. 1895, 1897; Hodge in Am. Anthrop., viii, no. 3, 1895; Holmes in 13th Rep. B. A. E., 1896; Matthews (1) in 3d Rep. B. A. E., 1884, (2) Navaho Legends, 1897; Pepper in Everybody’s Mag., Jan. 1902; Stephen in Am. Anthrop., vi, no. 4, 1893; Voth in Am. Anthrop., n, no. 2, 1900. See Adornment, Clothing, Dyes and Pigments, Receptacles, Wearing, (O. T. M. W. H.)

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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