The Chilkat Dancing Blanket

Alina Ruta

The Chilkat dancing blanket, named after the eponymous indigenous tribe living on the Pacific Northwest Coast of Northern America, is one of the most interesting pieces in the art of weaving in the Native culture. Chilkat also became the name of an Alaskan glacier and of a river which stretches west and south to British Columbia and through Alaska for almost a hundred kilometers until reaching the Pacific Ocean. Chilkat, meaning "salmon storehouse", is in fact the Russian pronunciation of the tribe's name Tlingit in its own language.

"The literature on the Chilkat weaving tradition is very meager. The major work has been George T. Emmons' 1907 study, The Chilkat Blanket, with an accompanying analysis of blanket designs by Franz Boaz. Although a pioneering and useful work, it is at best a general description. In 1950 Philip Drucker published some tantalizing notes on blanket weaving in his Culture Element Distributions: Northwest Coast and in 1955 Joanne Hirabayashi published an article, "The Chilkat Weaving Complex", which is an analysis of the characteristics of blankets based on those in the collection of the Washington Museum. Beyond these few, the Chilkat Blanket appears in print only in brief descriptions, almost all based on Emmons' study." (The Chilkat Dancing Blanket Foreword/9)

However, numerous stories are woven into these exceptional pieces of art, stories of enduring the hardships of winter while waiting for spring, while waiting for a marriage suitor. Numerous legends recount even the origin of the name which came about when translated from Tsimshian into Tlingit "gus-halai't", translated in 1907 by Lieutenant Emmons in his monograph The Chilkat Blanket, as the "dancing blanket." And because weaving is amongst the most ancestral customs in Native culture, it has become a cult in its own right, being transferred to future generations through intermarriage between Tlingit families: "the Tongass, the Stikine, and the Chilkat." Emmons interpreted "Nakheen" - the sound and the name of this garment - as "the fringe about the body" referring to "the flowing warp fringe which sways about the body when the robe is worn in the dance."

One of the first stories about the origin of the Chilkat blanket stands to recount a young woman's life as she got tricked to lose herself in the woods in order to be found by a handsome youth who belonged to the Bear clan. She was later taken to the village from which she later fled in order to be rescued by a fisherman in his canoe. This mysterious fisherman who magically happened to be at the seashores while this young woman was in desperate need, was in fact the benevolent sea spirit Gonaqadet. They quickly left and after some time at sea, Gonaqadet guided his canoe to the bottom of the sea where his house was. "Giant seaweeds forested the sea floor and the painted house front, beautifully carved and inlaid with green haliotis shell, welcomed their arrival." They later on became very much attached to one another and had a baby boy, human in form. When the time came for the boy to learn about manhood, he was allowed to leave with his mother and head for the land for his maternal uncle's village. Upon leaving, the sea spirit kindly asked his wife not to forget him. She never did. Reaching her brother's village, she was able to watch her son grow and become the man he was destined to. During this time of learning for her son, she started weaving her story into "a magnificent ceremonial robe" recounting it from the very beginning. When her son reached the age of maturity, she left the land and returned to the sea presenting the robe to her husband.

Another story explaining the dancing in the very name of the blanket (or the robe) tells about Raven who came to Gonaqadet and was invited to attend a feast. Raven was later on that evening invited to sit around the central fire and watch the dancers perform their elegant dancing moves while the pounding echoed the sounds of the sea. We are told that it was a very moving evening, for, watching Gonaqadet passionately and very dynamically dancing while wearing his blanket, it remained imprinted on Raven's memory. The way he moved, donned in his fringed robe while following the pounding resembling the sea sounds and while the waves were recreated by the long fringes in his dynamic movements must have made a huge impression on Raven. And this is why he was given the blanket, at the end of the ceremony after Gonaqadet made a long speech, to take it to "the villages of men" when he would journey and to offer it to the human race in order for them to "unravel and to weave again. It was in this way that women became weavers of the beautiful Dancing Blankets."

Needless to say that the word blanket was coined by the European traders, who understood its trading potential and used it as such for generations to come. As mentioned before, it is rather a robe than a blanket, but since it gained its own name as the Dancing Blanket, people acknowledge it really as an exceptionally woven dancing garment in Native culture.

The Dancing Blanket was worn during the winter ceremonial by the chief who would host this event and would make long and powerful speeches honoring his guests and the very occasion. Generally, a feast and a dancing performance would follow around the central fire. The dances performed at this ceremonial would often mimic the movements of animals or of nature itself. The chanted songs would be accompanied by slow and syncopated drumbeats.

In terms of actual weaving techniques, the Tlingit weaver uses a hand-made free solid warp system of threads without any shuttle or tension between them. The warps are made out of mountain goat wool and cedar bark and they are spun together over on the weaver's leg in order to make them dense, hard, but also manoeuvrable. They will use them as support for the tapestry when creating the weaving patterns which develop interesting forms and shapes imitating different elements of nature or most commonly human faces. These faces are not human so to speak, but representations of the spirits inhabiting the animals. This is why they are often mistaken for human faces and mostly because they are woven in the center of the animal, because the blanket itself is in fact a representation of an animal, only a part of a larger and more complex ceremonial costume.

"The Chilkat Dancing Blanket is the life story of a magnificent woven robe which graced the shoulders of aboriginal nobility from Yakutat, Alaska to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. From the legendary origins of this weaving this story unfolds to tell of the women who wove it, of the source and inspiration for the designs which adorn it, and of the pride and esteem in which it was held by the society which gave it birth."(Dust jacket)

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