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Ask MOA: What Is This Blanket?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case features a series of exchanges about a button blanket between the inquirer and MOA Curator Jennifer Kramer.

Inquirer: I bought this blanket at an antique market in Ontario about 12 years ago, and the seller had purchased it from a woman in Whitehorse. I recognized it as a button blanket from the West Coast and didn’t know much more about them at the time. The seller had no information about the history or source of the blanket. The blanket is made of a felt/nylon and buttons. I might guess it was made within the last 40 to 60 years (but that’s a guess!). 

I have been attempting to locate the band or nation this button blanket came from, so I can offer it back to them if they wish to have it, as I understand they are ceremonial and I don’t know the intention of the maker—whether it was ever intended to be sold to a settler. I had contacted the Haida Gwaii Museum, who let me know it wasn’t from their nation, and they kindly recommended I reach out to Museum of Northern BC, Nisga’a Museum, a Kwanlin Dün museum in Whitehorse, and the Museum of Anthropology. If you have any information or leads, that would be much appreciated! 

Jennifer Kramer: Thank you for sending us images of your textile originally from Whitehorse. It sparked a conversation among the curators who work with MOA’s Northwest Coast collections because while it is certainly made in a northern Northwest Coast button blanket style, its shape and its red lining suggest it was made to be a wall hanging and probably not a ceremonial blanket to be worn or danced as a marker of identity.

It possesses components that are typical of a Northwest Coast button blanket: a rectangular shape, a central appliquéd crest design outlined in buttons, and a border in a different colour. However, usually the border is only on the top and sides of the blanket, not the bottom and frequently the width of the blanket is wider than the height so that it drapes comfortably over the wearer’s shoulders. The triangle shapes made of red felt or pearl-coloured buttons are frequently used decorations on button blankets, but when made to be worn these border patterns would line up and march symmetrically down the front of the wearer.

The central crest of your textile looks to be a killer whale. Tlingit people are born into either the wolf or the raven moiety and killer whale is a clan that is part of the wolf moiety.

Your desire to return this textile to the First Nation whose member created it is a thoughtful response in light of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process. Although we don’t know whether it was originally made for sale to a settler or made to adorn a First Nations’ home, reaching out to the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse makes a lot of sense. If we can assume it was made in Whitehorse, Whitehorse is home to not only Tlingit, but also Tagish, Northern Tutchone and Southern Tutchone people, who intermarry. This might have been made by someone who is connected to multiple First Nations. It is also possible that a non-Native person tried their hand at making a regalia styled textile, but we will probably never know who the maker was. The Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre represents Indigenous people from all of these First Nations and potentially might make a good home for this textile.

Inquirer: Many thanks to you and the curators for all your input, it’s much appreciated. And so fascinating to learn! I don’t want to take up any more of your time, but if I can ask one last question, it would be whether such a button blanket style is known to be made for the purpose of display (and not regalia) within First Nations communities?

I’ll definitely follow your suggestion as well, and follow-up with the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

Tlingit Chief Charles Jones Shakes at home with possessions, Wrangell, Alaska, ca. 1907. University of Washington Libraries,

Jennifer Kramer: To answer your question, I would say that “traditionally,” button blankets would not have been used for display on walls but kept out of sight until an appropriate potlatch or other ceremonial event (although it is important to note that button blankets are not a pre-contact with Europeans phenomenon, as they were originally made out of traded Hudson’s Bay Company wool blankets). One exception to this statement is the posed late 19th to early 20th-century photographs of Tlingit chiefs surrounded by their wealth: cedar boxes, masks, beaded dance aprons, talking sticks, etc., and sometimes draped or hung button blankets are also included. It would be like showing a King’s heraldic banner identifying a family tree or history of inheritance. For example, take this photo (right), where you can see the button blanket hanging up on the centre back wall of Chief Shakes’ home in Wrangell, Alaska circa 1907.

Detail of Łu Zil Män (multi-purpose room) at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Now, one often sees this sort of button blanket style used as wall hangings. Look at the multi-purpose room in the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre (right). The difference being that the central appliquéd crest on each hanging usually represents an entire community, not an individual and their personal inherited identity. I know about many cultural centres and schools that offer Indigenous cultural revitalization programs that teach (often urban) First Nations how to make button blankets.  So I could imagine your textile being created in this way. Hope that adds.

Inquirer: Many thanks, I’ve learned so much! And I realize now there could be so many different possibilities for the blanket’s history than what I could have imagined. It would be wonderful if it had been created from a revitalization program and that may explain why the stitching on the back could have been done by someone possibly new to sewing. I also hope to connect with the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre sometime in future.