Chilkat Blankets

Chilkat Blanket (NA1285), 19th Century

Mountain goat wool, yellow cedar bark

180 cm L x 130 cm W x 3 cm H

Collected by George Byron Gordon, 1905

 

The Chilkat Blanket descends to humankind in Tlingit mythology from a love story involving a chief’s daughter and the benevolent sea spirit Gonaqadet, which culminates in Raven’s gift of the Blanket to the human race to unravel and learn the art of its weaving.[i]  The origin story of the first Chilkat Blanket—so named for the Tlingit tribe who specialized in its production—is as wondrous as this robe itself. Its abundantly fringed, richly colored, and ornately woven form defined the pinnacle of status for any clan member. This weaving begins with the background warp, made of mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark, and the weft—wool only—runs horizontally across the warp and functions as the colored design yarn.[ii] Preparing these yarns is an arduous task, requiring upwards of six months of collection, dyeing, spinning, and plying.[iii] While men provided the goatskin, the loom, and the pattern board, women not only collected the bark, but also prepared the materials and wove the blanket itself.[iv] The weaving process requires another six months, culminating in one year of labor for a single blanket.

For such a labor-intensive and costly item, the Chilkat Blanket was a grand medium for the display of a clan’s emblem.  The prevailing feature of the Tlingit and Haida alike is the emblem, or crest of the family, and its form is visible in many artistic forms.  With rigid family and clan rules and expectations, the crest is one’s familial inheritance.  These crests are stylized animal figures or mythological beings that are passed down through families, legends, and traditions.  The design of the Blanket itself is covered with usually one crest figure.  Some are easily identifiable, but the majority are exceedingly difficult to decipher and read as a total form. With an understanding of the overall design principles in these Blankets, the main features are clear, yet the interpretation of the original crest figure may never be ascertained by any except the initial designer.

The Blanket contains several elements that help to illuminate the crest symbol.  Formlines, which are black in color and course through the entire design field, outline the crest animal.  Woven on a white warp, the Blanket’s background is thus white, with blue and yellow coloration of the body of the specific forms, which are colored in keeping with strict principles.  The specific forms created by this weaving range from the primary black formlines to ovoids to U-, L-, and S-shapes, all of which characterize a specific body part or joint.

In its completed, five-sided form, a main field is framed by two broad black and yellow borders and is surrounded by long warp fringes on four sides. It lacks clarity with its typical distributive design: the crest animal’s features are arranged not in terms of anatomical accuracy, but in order to fill the entire field, thus hindering the viewer’s ability to distinguish a figure.  The Blanket, as shown here, is usually paneled; that is, the design field is split into three parts—a larger central one skirted by two smaller ones.  Because of its bilateral symmetry, the pattern board that was used as a model was only ever half-finished.[v]  It is believed that the central panel contains the crest figure split lengthwise and flattened (with the head in double profile), while the side panels either represent the reverse or a single profile of the body.  These side panels, however, are typically viewed as decorative, and their contents are even more vague than those of the central space.  The result of this patterning and weaving is an artistic wonder. Aesthetically, through a complete dissection of the animal form and distortion of the animal’s features in space, the artist derives a wholly unique visual system in which the crest figure is preserved and presented insofar as the much-restricted space allows.[vi]

This system is fully displayed here in this blanket. By analyzing other Chilkat Blankets, we can derive several design elements that are consistent based on their form and location.[vii] Thus, one can visualize the blue-green U-shapes in the top corners (of both the central and side panels) as ears. Just below these paired Us are eyes, and the elongated central blue shape could represent the mouth. A man’s head, enclosed in a square in all three panels is not a literal figuration of a head, but rather depicts the central body of the animal. Finally in the bottom peripheries of the central panel, the yellow squares with internal circles and attached white rounded forms may illustrate claws. All of these features alone could not accurately identify a specific animal, and more than with any other Haida or Tlingit work, the viewer is mired in uncertainty in Chilkat blankets.

For such an uncertain depiction, much is known about the Blanket’s high-status role in society, being unattainable for all but the extremely wealthy.  In ceremonial costume that included similarly designed leggings, tunic, and an apron, the Blanket was the principal actor.  In a variety of winter ceremonial events, a wealthy chief would wear this blanket and make long speeches followed by both a feast and dance performances.  One particular dance—the Headdress Dance—was performed in the Blanket itself, and it was worn over the shoulders and fastened near the neck to allow the fringe an unfettered swinging motion.  The “Dancing Blanket” alternate name derives from this very dance.  One of these winter ceremonial occasions in which the Blanket featured prominently was the “potlatch,” a complex social affair marked by the host’s presentation of “the rights or privileges he claimed—such as the right to display a certain crest, to own a name, or to raise a totem pole.”[viii]  These rights necessitated guests’ endorsements, and these guests were showered with gifts.  The Blanket itself, when worn and danced with, yielded admiration, but for a chief to gift one or several far surpassed this status of ownership.  Such Blankets were given away whole and also as cut strips—equally cherished and valued.[ix]  These strips were then refashioned into other ceremonial garments, and on occasion, later reassembled to create a “potlatch” shirt or tunic. Perhaps the iconographic ambiguity then served this additional cultural function, allowing more than the original artist, weaver, and owner the ability to envision the totemic forms with the widest possible latitude.  After a Chief’s death, the Blanket is first thrown over the deceased’s lower body and then hung outside the grave house on full display.[x] Even in Death, the Blanket continued to connote wealth and prestige.

-Sam Schnittman


[i] Emmons (1993), 329-30, and Samuel (1982), 12-15

[ii] Samuel (1982), 55

[iii] Samuel (1982), 66

[iv] Emmons (1993), 334

[v] Holm (1970), 84-5

[vi] Samuel (1982), 79

[vii] Emmons (1993), 366

[viii] Samuel (1982), 34

[ix] Emmons (1993), 345

[x] Samuel (1982), 36

Emmons, George Thornton. The Basketry of the Tlingit and The Chilkat Blanket. [Sitka, AK]: Friends of

the Sheldon Jackson Museum for the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Division of Libraries, Archives, and Museums, State of Alaska, 1993. Print.

Holm, Bill. Northwest Coast Indian Art; an Analysis of Form,. Seattle: University of Washington, 1970.

Print.

Samuel, Cheryl. The Chilkat Dancing Blanket. Seattle, WA: Pacific Search, 1982. Print.

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