Post #3087: Coast Salish textiles

I’ve been taking advantage of my city things this past week, last night’s adventure being a trip with friends to the Museum of Anthropology to see the exhibition of Coast Salish blankets that is currently on display. The feature photo on this post are some modern reproductions of much earlier works which are fragile and under glass.

Since reading the book Salish Blankets: Robes of Protection and Transformation, Symbols of Wealth last year, I have come to realize that pretty much everything I have learned about Coast Salish art is wrong. Though to some degree I have been critical of the colonial relationship to indigenous artworks  – how Haida art is often passed off as the art of all coastal peoples, how colonial interpretations of First Nations work limited it value as art, how settler people have never learned to see or appreciate the maker and the culture behind the artifacts hung on their walls – I have continued to hold a limited understanding of First Nations cultural and artworks from my bioregion.

For starters, the book and display of Salish blankets have opened my eyes to:

  • a diverse colour palette – reproductions of salish artwork are limited to certain a red, white, and black motif for the most part – the textile tradition on display explodes that idea – as is evidenced by the deep blues, bright pinks, and purples on display in some of these woven objects. Lichens, mushrooms, and all varieties of plants were used to dye fabrics, resulting in a rainbow of colour available to the indigenous fibre worker.
  • designs and motifs aplenty- again, because Haida art has become the normative coastal artwork ascribed to all indigenous people, I tend to think in certain shapes and motifs. The blankets on display, however, show a variety of artistic interpretations – not at all limited to a single type or motif. It’s also important to remember that only about 200 salish blankets from near or pre contact survive to this day – so as an outsider, I really have a very distorted view as to the traditions as a whole.
  • an array of materials – if you learned about First Nations people in BC schools in the 70s and 80s (as I did), you learn about cedar weaving and that’s pretty much it. The textile tradition, of course, had many more materials at hand including dog fur, mountain goat hair, nettle fibre, duck and goose down, strips of hide, Indian hemp, milkweed, and so on. Many of these fibres are on display in the samples at MOA.

Tomorrow I will be returning to the MOA for a one day workshop on the techniques of Coast Salish weaving. This will snug up against what I have learned about the post-colonial knitting tradition which is inspired by the weaving repertoire but not as diverse owing to the fact that knitting was shaped much more by market forces, and less by internal cultural and artistic needs. I’m looking forward to more learning in this rich textile tradition, and continuing my unlearning of a limited vision for the history of this place.

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