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In Conversation: Sue Rowley Speaks with Debra Sparrow

Susan Rowley, MOA Curator, Arctic + Public Archeology, shared a candid phone call with acclaimed Musqueam weaver and multidisciplinary artist Debra Sparrow. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on everything from how Debra is processing the COVID-19 pandemic, to her goal of blanketing the world with her weaving designs, to the science behind historic Salish weavings.

Listen to their conversation below:

Museum of Anthropology at UBC · In Conversation: Sue Rowley Speaks with Debra Sparrow

Artist biography: 

Debra Sparrow was born and raised on the Musqueam Indian Reserve. She is self-taught in Salish design, weaving and jewellery-making. An acclaimed weaver, Debra has been deeply involved with the revival of the Musqueam weaving tradition for more than 30 years. Her artwork is exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Vancouver International Airport, the Royal BC Museum, the Canadian Museum of History, the Burke Museum in Seattle, and the Smithsonian. In 2008, Debra received the BC Creative Achievement Award for First Nations Art. In 2010, she designed the logo for the Canadian Men’s Hockey Team for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, held in Vancouver. 

In 2018, Debra was instrumental in creating the “Blanketing the City” mural series—a part of the Vancouver Mural Festival. For it, she created three giant murals that showcase Musqueam weaving patterns and acknowledge the visual culture of the people whose unceded territory viewers are on. Debra continues to create from her home in Musqueam. She is also a teacher, having taught Salish weaving to hundreds of people of all ages, and she continues to educate others about the history and culture, beauty and integrity of her peoples through her artwork, activism, and speaking engagements.

Artworks discussed:

Blanketing the City is a series of murals by Debra Sparrow throughout the City of Vancouver in 2018-19. This project arose from conversations between Debra and the Vancouver Mural Festival to find more foundational ways to observe cultural protocol, and acknowledge the visual culture of the people who have thrived, and continued to evolve, on their unceded territories for thousands of years. Watch a video about the murals painted on the Granville Street Bridge here.

Blanketing the City mural on the Granville Street Bridge in Vancouver. Photo by Rachel Topham. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver.
Wrapping the world in Blankets. Image courtesy of Debra Sparrow.












Golden Threads from Heaven, a project consisting of two weavings, were installed the Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver in 2019. Read more about them here.

Golden Threads from Heaven, Debra Sparrow. Photo by Susan Rowley.
Golden Threads from Heaven, Debra Sparrow. Photo by Susan Rowley.


Golden Threads from Heaven, Debra Sparrow, in the Christ Church Cathedral. Photo by Susan Rowley.

As part of the exhibition The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving, an early Coast Salish blanket in the collection of the National Museum of Finland was loaned to MOA. It was the first time the weaving had returned home in over 200 years. Debra drew inspiration from this weaving for the new weaving she created at MOA (below).

Collection of the National Museum of Finland, VK-1. Photo by Markku Haverinen.

Weaving at MOA: The loom that Debra used to create her weaving during The Fabric of Our Land (MOA collection A8199) was made by Mrs. Bartleman, a W̱SÁNEĆ weaver, over a hundred years ago. When Debra’s weaving was complete, the Bartleman family from came to MOA to witness it come off of the loom. The finished weaving is now also a part of MOA’s collection (3356/1). Read more about the loom and this weaving here.

Debra Sparrow weaves in the Fabric of Our Land exhibition. Photo by Ken Mayer.
Debra Sparrow working on her weaving (MOA Collection 3356/1) in the Museum. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.









Full audio transcription: 

Sue Rowley: Hey, Debra, this is Sue calling. I just was calling to check in and see how you’re doing. I’m at home, working from home and I’m just wondering what you’re up to and doing at the moment.

Debra Sparrow: Well, I’m doing the same as you, I’m working at home, but for me, it’s great because I’ve always worked the home for the last 35 years. So it’s no different in the time that we’re living in right now. We’re, we’re kind of on lockdown, or so they call it but you know, people are moving a little bit now, which is nice. But you know, that little threat is always there. And it will continue to be there until there’s a solution and who knows where that is or when it is, but it’s interesting times, I think. I’m happy to talk to you all and share you know, this information of how I feel this has all unfolded in the world and in time. You know, my passion for my work goes further than just creating beautiful blankets for people to see. They’re actually reflections of the history that was very responsible for its environment, for how we lived in amongst the guests that we had. And I think I’ve come to understand that more now than I ever have.

What are the messages in our lives that people forget about? Because we all thought, in a general consensus that the key to life was to build a building to make a lot of money, but when a virus attacks us like it has, money means nothing to it, war means nothing to it. And so how do we survive in that without fear? Well, we have to turn inward to who we are and we have to reconnect or connect or stay connected. In this case I’m staying connected. I don’t feel fear, I feel faith. I have great faith also in the sciences of the world, because scientists have been working on these kinds of challenges since the beginning of time and, and I think they need to team up with all the knowledge keepers around the world and look inward. So as we look inward, we find knowledge that that isn’t written in a book.

Sue Rowley: Right.

Debra Sparrow: So that’s where I am today. I’m still reconnecting and staying focused on our history and walking to the river every night and sharing beautiful sunsets with all my friends in the city. And also not in the city. Whoever is following me on Instagram or on my [Facebook] page. I do it because I can and there’s such amazing sunsets these last two months since this has happened. And I think it’s a gift from the universe to say, You know what? We’ll get through this together, the warmth of the sun is still there. And if you’re living in an apartment somewhere and you can’t get out, you could at least look on your computer and see the beautiful sun reflecting back at us.

Sue Rowley: Well, I really appreciate the images that you have been posting both the sunset images and the images of the works that you’ve been creating, because they’ve been absolutely spectacular pieces. And I’m just wondering, are you drawing inspiration from what’s happening at the moment or just from the the history and everything that you bring to all your work?

Debra Sparrow: I think my inspiration has always been there, whether this happens or not, and that’s a teachable moment. For all of the people who are viewing it and thinking that this would inspire me, actually, I was inspired way before this happened. But it’s enabled me to stay grounded and hope that those kinds of messages that are woven in a blanket or woven in a textile to anybody around the world. It’s kind of like saving grace in some ways. Because it gives you that sense of thinking about, you know why we exist at all. And we have to balance that fear in the faith thing because, you know, if we don’t pay attention to this virus, to how it threatens the whole world, then we can go back to work. The whole world can go back to work, but it goes with us. And we choose work, or we choose almost death, depending on how it attacks an individual and it’s very individual because some people get sick and make it through fine and some don’t.

Sue Rowley: So you had mentioned to me on an earlier conversation that we had about a really exciting project that you’ve been thinking about, for bringing together people around the world in the way that the Coronavirus, that pandemic has struck all of us through weaving and through textile design. And I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about that.

Debra Sparrow: Well, you know, the interesting thing is, you know, in the last 35 years that I’ve been blessed to do what I do and share my gifts with everyone, not just Musqueam. One of my goals was to, you know, wasn’t a goal really, it was a conversation or it was a, it was a statement I made, to say, you know, “I love my blankets, I love our history. We’re all blanket people actually from everywhere in the world.” So I I’d love to wrap the City of Vancouver in our work, in the vision of who we are, and share that with Vancouver and we should be proud of that we shouldn’t not be talking about it.

So it kind of evolved over the last two years, especially when I stepped out of my traditional safety zone and stepped into a more contemporary vision of balancing back and forth, is where I am now. And so I took the designs and took them out of their comfort zone and mine, and we applied them to murals throughout the city. And so we call that project wrapping the City of Vancouver, Blanketing the City. And it was so successful and exciting. And I really didn’t see it coming. And then when I thought back, I thought, I said this 20 years ago, I wanted to wrap the city or, you know, have the city recognize the beauty and integrity of the Salish and Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh. We’re all related. So that was something that happened and it’s exciting and when I have to go into the city to do a protocol, [a] welcome, I usually talk about, for sure what protocol means to me as a representative of Musqueam and mention wrapping the city in a blanket. Over the last, you know, few months before this all happened, I sort of went through there and I said, you know, maybe one day I’ll wrap the whole world in a blanket and it was kind of a little joke for me. And then, you know, when this all happened, and we’re talking about, you know, staying connected, staying, you know, in who we are, and people are saying, “I don’t even know who I am anymore.” And I feel for that, because I do know who I am. And if that works for me, and it makes me feel safe, then that’s good. But I don’t live in a dream world that everything else is changing around us, the big shift stopped, right in our tracks. The whole world shuts down. We need a comforting moment.

And so I came back to that thought of, “What can I do?” And the first thing that comes to the blankets and the comfort of them. So I thought, well, I’m going to go a step further and I’m going to wrap the world in a blanket. So when it came to Earth Day, which was a couple of weeks back, I asked a friend of mine who works with me in graphics, and I said, give me a picture of the world and then take my images and wrap the world in a blanket and honor Mother Earth on that day and wrap her and so he did it and I put it on my [Facebook] page and then I went, wait a minute, I think I think what I want to do is, I got my daughter to go look up “How many countries are in the world?” because I usually don’t pay too much attention to that, even in school [laughs], so what is it, 194 something? And I thought, how big would a a blanket be if we took 194 countries and we made a 12 by 12″ square. And then we threaded all and wove all the countries together on one blanket. So that’s where I’m at I’m going to reach out. I’ve been reaching out already looking at how I approach that and bring every country in the world onto that blanket. I’m talking to different people who know different people. However, I only need one from each country so it could become overwhelming and that’s why I’m kind of going by word of mouth. And when it’s done, it’ll be 20 feet by 10 feet. So it’s not impossible. People think it’s a large project but it really isn’t. There are weavers all over the world who I’m sure will be on board with me and work with weavers here to either weave it here or ask them to send a woven piece which just makes sense. And it’s going to be all by volunteer, you know, I’m not going to get paid for it and I’m going to buy all the wool myself for stringing it up, like you see in the back, warping it up. Or, you know, just attaching these pieces together depending on well, depending on a few things, so I’m going to work that out as I go. But that’s my goal is to wrap our world.

Sue Rowley: That’s amazing.

Debra Sparrow: Mm hmm. Well, you know, I did a project for the church last year, down on Burrard [Street] and Georgia [Street], the Anglican Church and actually called it while I knew what I wanted to do, and it was called Golden Threads from Heaven. And I feel strong about the connection that we have to the universe, no matter which human race we are. We’re all a human race, but whichever culture, community we come from, we are, you know, attached to this knowledge that comes from the universe. That’s how come we write it out. That’s why we have knowledge. It comes from somewhere. It doesn’t just come from the book. And that’s what I understand as, as someone who’s lived in this community where I know it’s as ancient as time is, and we’ve paid attention to, to all of that. And we too, are guilty now of getting on the assimilation highway, and sometimes forgetting about who we are and what makes us valuable. And that’s something my grandfather’s said to me, he said, “Change some things, but don’t change it all.” And I, and I’m a little bit leery that we’re getting near changing it all. And I want to pull that back. And I think the world has pulled that back on everyone now. I think they’ve pulled back that page of time and said, “Don’t forget how you’re connected to the universe and that what we do to the universe, we do to ourselves,” and this is the prime example of it. And so those threads that are mad that you can’t see that fall from the heavens that are attached to every one of us is our responsibility. And, you know, political people and scientists may think that’s a romantic notion. And it is, but it’s a romantic, knowledgeable notion, it’s viable, in saving our sanity, as anything else.

Sue Rowley: More and more at the moment, we all feel the need to make those connections, those personal connections to people. And I think I know that we at the Museum are so grateful that we have some of your pieces, that the museum is partly blanketed in the works, with the works that you’ve done, in the works that you and your sister Robyn, have been involved in. And then I know one of the things that I was involved in with you was the one we did The Fabric of our Land: Salish Weaving exhibit and we were able to, at the request of weavers and the behest of your sister, Wendy, create the show to bring back some of the weavings that had been taken away from this part of the world. One of those was living in a museum in Finland and came back for a visit and you did a version of it while sitting in the museum weaving, and I wondered, what was that experience like sitting in the museum leaving and interacting with all our visitors?

Debra Sparrow: Well, I didn’t concentrate too much on the visitors unless they tapped me on the shoulder. I think it was a great experience for them to see the evolution of a blanket, and you as well, in the museum atmosphere. But you know, it’s not somewhere like I’m not Ishi, you know, the last Aboriginal man to have to live in a museum and you get that feeling… When you asked me I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. But I had to pull myself out of tradition. And that’s what we have to do. We have to, we have to pull ourselves out and say, “Okay, this is the world I’m living in now. I’m living in the year 2018, 2019 when I did that.” I’ll bring that with me when it comes to the museum, because that’s my contentment living in Musqueam, that I’m surrounded by my knowledge and my ancient place. And it’s at the museum too. But, you know, your building is housing many knowledges, many people from around the world. And to be there with the blanket that came from Finland, to me was a… it’s a moving experience. Because I can refer and look back 200 years ago to when that woman made that blanket, or those women because I’m sure, now that I know what I know that was more than one woman working on on the pieces because the fineness of them, and as you know, you counted 500 warps. And 250 made the design and that’s brilliant.

And so I’m so honoured to be amongst the brilliant women who bring that knowledge to me, they bring it to me, they make me responsible for the messages that are so important from their perspective 200 and 300 and 400, 500 years back when they knew how to take care of viruses, when they knew how to take care of their sicknesses and they use that same plant as medicine for dyeing the wool. They use the same plant for you know, medicines for dyes for you know, and it makes me in awe of them, and then to lose that for 85 years and be assimilated into a mentality that is so different. And so… “colonial” is the word. You know, I never really wanted to go in that direction. And actually I didn’t. So to come back to who you are, and this can go across the board for any culture, any weaver, especially now today, and that’s what I’m talking about is that we have to come back to who we are. We we get so far away from ourselves that we lose who we are. And the assimilation of that is why there’s such a contentious going-on in the US right now because the President is so removed from himself that he doesn’t even know who he is. So he can’t run a country because he doesn’t even know who he is as a US person anymore. I don’t know about our leadership. You know, can go on and on. And people don’t like to intertwine politics with they say don’t intertwine politics with history or with sciences but I’m sorry, they all weave together. That’s what’s been frightening is that you know they’re separating them to such a degree now… knowledge is power. But you better remember where the knowledge came from when you’re using your power. And that’s important. And that’s what our people I felt at one time stood on their blankets, their knowledge. It is complex, and it’s a challenge. So bringing that blanket back from Finland is still a moving experience for me.

When I look at the one I did work on in the museum, I’m a little bit wishing that I had made it even finer. I might want to do it again. And I might want to use stinging nettle and mountain goat, dog hair. And, you know, really follow those footsteps. I’m telling you, when I look at it, when I make a blanket now, it takes me two, three months for a six foot [blanket]. I can’t even imagine how long it took them to make that one, even though it was four by four, four by five [feet]. It’s, you know, 50 times finer than the one I’m working on. And I’m so in awe of those women making them that fine as a tapestry. Because behind that’s intelligence, and that’s the thing I’m excited about. I’m not just excited about how beautiful they are. I’m excited about the intelligence behind these women and men who were so wrongly thought of that, you know, “This was just a pretty blanket. Let’s take it home.” And then when you study it, look at it and you think about tapestries and we had people come, in women come into the museum who were tapestry weavers and said, this is like a tapestry and I was like, “Whoa, yeah. I know.” And that’s exciting for us because it tells you about the intelligence and the connection of these women had to not only their intelligence, but the responsibility of their history.

Sue Rowley: And then when I think about when you were talking about the plants and the stinging nettle, that, for me is a perfect example. Many people nowadays are brought up with stinging nettles as being a weed, something you don’t love in your garden. And yet, when you think about the way that they were used as fibres, for the blankets, for nets, for dyes, for greens, for foods and for medicines. They interwove in all aspects of the culture. I think we’ve lost a lot of that. So I really appreciate the way that you brought that in and brought that to the fore. And the way that we tend to silo knowledge, versus making sure that it’s all interconnected in the way that you were talking about.

Debra Sparrow: Well, while I was finishing the one [blanket] you see behind me, a friend of mine texted me that she had stinging nettle, but they were too short. And so I went on YouTube and I looked up how to make fibre from stinging nettles. So I listened to the whole thing while I was weaving, and I was like, I have to stop and watch because it’s so tedious. Oh, man, so challenging. Talk about learning focus and patient there. You know, I mean, you know, people are all over the world on YouTube and Facebook right now saying “What do we do? Let’s bring in arts and crafts.” What they’re really doing is they’re searching for themselves, for what they were taught to forget about. The value behind that they don’t even realize, they’re realizing now, “Who am I?” you know, I was watching Soul Sunday with Oprah and she had Alicia Keys on and Alicia said, “It makes you sit here and go, Who am I now? Is that closet full of clothes that important? Is the Porsche the driveway that important? What’s really important when the brakes are put on is that we have food and we love one another.” So I think that’s one thing you know, that everybody has to stop and think about. If you’re in Italy, you’re going to be in your culture, you’re going to be in the house, cooking your spaghetti and speaking your language and holding on to the threads. When you’re in Africa, when you’re in any culture, that’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to refer to your history, but how do we further refer to our history in Canada or the US? Do we have one, you know? And that that’s something that I felt strongly about in doing the murals and saying I want to share I want to be inclusive and nice, even though I shouldn’t be for everything that’s happened to us, that we stand in who we are, still. Go ahead, take away this. Go ahead, take away that. Take away everything if you want, but you can’t take my spirit, and you can’t take my soul. So I still have that I still have my dignity, I stand in it. And these blankets I stand on, they represent that. And so I’ll wrap myself in it. And I want to wrap everybody else in it until we get to a place where we understand that we cannot keep taking everything from this world and universe and think that this isn’t going to happen. And it’s an eye opener.

But it comes back to you know, that blanket again when it came home after 200 years of not being seen. And I was with you when we opened it. But I felt that kind of, I guess, honour to be there when it came home for the first time in 200 years. And that, you know that connected to me. And then to go and look at it all the time in the museum and study it and think about the women who made it who existed. The women who, for 85 years were forgotten about. I’m just taken back, back, back right in time to them and bringing that philosophy forward. And I think that most weavers around the world would feel the same way, I’m sure. It brings you to a place that working a nine to five job can’t bring you.

Sue Rowley: Yeah, and I also when I was in the space would feel the connection with all the families and the family work that went on to gather the materials to make the weavings together, the dyes to create the dyes, to spin the wool, that the hunters that went together to hunt the mountain goats for the goat wool. It just gave you that sense of such a strong, interconnected, interwoven community, making sure that these incredible pieces could be created.

Debra Sparrow: Yeah, well, that’s for sure. And, you know, family—family is what it’s all about. And what are your laws and values? And they’re woven into the blanket. They’re woven into ceremony, and the world misses ceremony.

Sue Rowley: Yeah. And when people are wearing the weavings and they’re taking them out, into the public realm, they are making political statements, when they’re wearing them.

Debra Sparrow: Oh, you know, they identify who we are at some point as well. So, because it wasn’t seen for 85 years, that’s why people, well in this country, didn’t know and were taught because it was silenced. I like to say our blankets were dormant, lying sleeping, but they’re awake now. That responsibility, all of us who are bringing them forward again have and I’m excited about it because people are paying attention. I think this shift that’s happening in the world to stop us in our tracks is where we’re at today, and we can fall softly on them.

Sue Rowley: That’s great. Thank you so much for talking with me today. Debra, it’s been really amazing.

Debra Sparrow: You’re welcome. I’m always willing to come forward and share that knowledge with whoever’s willing to listen and, you know, share it and have an opportunity to have people share back. So thank you.