West Coast button blankets: gorgeous and meaningful

West Coast button blankets: gorgeous and meaningful

Hello all!

Button blanket by Nancee Wood

Button Blanket by Nancee Wood

How are you all doing? Over here in BC, Canada, I am enjoying a long weekend, as tomorrow is BC Family day. If you follow my Facebook page, you know I attended Hobiyee, the Nisga’a nation New Year celebration 2 days ago (article to come on Hobiyee, stay tuned). And it was just awesome and breathtaking. As soon as I came in and heard the singing and drumming, I had chills. And I had not even seen the dancers yet!! And boy were they ever spectacular. Many of them were wearing the West Coast button blanket, hence why I am writing about it today. I really wish you could have seen those beautiful blankets in person as the pictures do not do them justice at all. I think my mouth was open the whole time, just in awe. I live on the West Coast and I am fortunate enough to see button blankets quite frequently. But I had never seen so many at once and so many ornate ones. Just stunning! So let’s talk about and look at some West Coast button blankets!

button blankets Hobiyee

Button blankets at Hobiyee

Where do West Coast button blankets come from?

Well many will say that button blankets first appeared after European contact. Why you ask? Because it is understood that the maritime fur traders introduced the wool blankets used to make them. The Hudson’s Bay Company (in Canada famous for its striped wool blanket) later supplied the wool blankets to First Nations people. Women of the different nations would transform those ordinary looking blankets into those gorgeous ceremonial capes or robes by applying a crest surrounded by a frame, both of contrasting color to the blanket (if the blanket was blue, the crest and frame would often be red for example). Oftentimes, they would apply the family crest to the blanket, leading to many different blankets across the nations.

Allison_Berkshire_Killer_Whale_Button_Blanket

Allison Berkshire Killer Whale Button Blanket

The women, being the creative individuals they were, started thinking “what else can be used to adorned the blankets”? Well, at first dentalium shells were often used to line the crest or the frame. Making it visible from a distance. Abalone shells were also used, as they reflected light when dancers danced around a fire for example. When they began trading with the fur traders, other materials such as pearl buttons began to be used. Today, you will see button blankets with shell buttons, plastic buttons (at times) and even beads. All reflecting light and catching the light in the dancer’s movement. If you think about it, as buttons lined the crest or highlight some of its features (e.g. eyes), they made the family crest visible from afar.

button blanket

Button blanket-thunderbird. It hangs where I attend pow wows every week

So by now you guessed the origins of its name….

Of course the button blanket takes its name from its adornments. I also keep saying “West Coast button blanket” because it is mostly used by the West Coast nations. I do not believe I have ever seen one on the East Coast. It is then used by the Nisga’a, Haida, Tlingit and the Tsimshian nations, all originally from the Pacific Northwest coast. And as I stated, blankets would often bear the family crest.

So what does one do with a button blanket?

Yes you might be wondering “ok they are nice but what is the purpose of button blankets”? Fair button blanketsenough. Well, first of all, they are considered west coast regalia. They are worn on special occasions. You will then not see (or should not see) someone going grocery shopping wearing a button blanket….Thus, they are ceremony blankets. So what does that imply? It implies that just as with east coast regalia, one takes very good care of their button blanket and one wears it with pride. I have seen many dancers sewing their blanket and it is a labor of love. The animal, the crest you see on the blanket is not there by coincidence. They mean something to the wearer. As mentioned above, it might be their family or tribe crest or might also be their spirit animal. Or part of their names. Ask the dancer what it means to them.

And I say “dancers” because the blanket will often be worn during dances. If you check out the videos of Hobiyee on my Facebook page, you will see that the blanket is often used in the dance itself (e.g. to create wings for example).

That being said, blankets can also be worn or given during other ceremonies (where one does not dance wearing the blanket). For example, button blankets are often worn during potlatches, a gift giving feast of the Pacific Northwest people. A button blanket can also be given in a variety of ceremonies such as a wedding (given to the couple) or a graduation. And very importantly, it can be given in a naming ceremony. What is a naming ceremony you ask? It is a ceremony where one receives their traditional name. Their Native name. One does not choose their name, it is given to them. Just like one does not buy an eagle feather, it is given to you. In most West Coast naming ceremonies, female relatives will sew a button blanket bearing the family crest or a crest related to the name given that day. It is then given to the recipient of the name. It is an honor to be given a button blanket. And it is part of the traditions the ancestors carried on.

button blanket

 

 

Dogfish button blanket

Dogfish button blanket

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here you were, the story and meaning of the West Coast button blanket. What are your thoughts? Were you familiar with the concept? Have you seen them before? Comment below!

Emergence button blanket

Emergence button blanket

little one with button attire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving you with a short video about the button blanket including a wonderful song and dance with a button blanket.

All my Relations

29 thoughts on “West Coast button blankets: gorgeous and meaningful

  1. Tony Tate

    These Button Blankets are amazing simply beautiful. So much fascinating in-depth information you have provided, This article is also beautiful and very easy to read as I fount what I was reading is very interesting.

    Thank you for shearing this this content with me.

    Tony

    Reply
  2. Steve

    These look AMAZING, Emily! And the older they are, and the more they are passed down from generation to generation… the more ‘MANA’ (familial spiritual energy) they will have…. blankets are such an effective medium for such energy, right?

    Reply
  3. Michelle

    Hey There Emily

    Those blankets are totally amazing.

    Your website is full of interesting articles, very neatly put together and easy to navigate.

    all the best.
    Michelle

    Reply
  4. Jason

    Reading this article about West Coast button blanket is totally a lovely read for me. I like the concept of these button used to reflect all the lights at the various ceremonies.

    Your knowledge about all these traditional native rituals and ceremonies are why I will always find my way back to your website. I have learned a lot about ancient Native American lifestyle, dreams, ceremonies and a whole lot more.

    Thanks for sharing your wide knowledge on this subject Emily. Looking forward to you next post soon!

    Reply
  5. Garen

    Hey Emily,

    These west coast button blankets look absolutely amazing. How did these blankets get their name? My uncle actually used to have one of these blankets. I’m sure it wasn’t authentic, but it was very beautiful Forgive me because this might be a novice question, but how come they only use the blankets at ceremonies.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Garen
      The blankets are amazing yes! Well the name literally comes from the buttons used to make the blankets. As simple as that! The blankets would be considered regalia, which is ceremony wear. Meaning that it is sacred and should not be worn on an every day basis. It is an honor to have a button blanket and the wearer really takes good care of it.

      Reply
  6. Hindy Pearson

    Hi Emily, I did see a dance performance by a Native dance troupe quite some time ago, and I do remember how beautiful their blankets were, but I wasn’t familiar with the term, or the significance of them. You can see how breathtakingly beautiful they are, made all the more so because of the buttons. As gorgeous as they are, I don’t think the effect would be the same if it weren’t for the images outlined in those buttons. I think for the more creative among us, it’s a nice tip to apply to jazz up our own every day items. Of course they would never compare to the button blanket. Thanks for another hint into a fascinating world.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Hindy
      Oh I agree, the buttons definitively highlight the shapes and the family crests. You can see the outlines from afar. And it is a beautiful sight. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Rob Smith

    Interesting and helpful Emily
    I am reading books by Lynne Kelly …an Australian writer…and she has said some exciting things about the profound depths of knowledge within indigenous culture and the critical role of beautiful ornate objects in remembering …
    Button blankets might have , or contain strong echoes of even deeper significance …
    Here is a link to her podcast …respectfully informed by many cultures and worth listening to
    http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2016/06/22/4486659.htm

    Regards
    Rob

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Rob
      thanks for the link! I will look her up. Really love how you said “contain strong echoes of even deeper significance”. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Theo Jim

    I make button blanket and many for sale. Parks Canada. Purchased 3 and some private sales. Would like to show you some drop me an email and I could show you some and still working on 6 now they take a long time to make.
    Ted

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Ted
      thanks for stopping by. It is awesome that you make your own button blankets. Are you from the Pacific Northwest? Are any of your family crest?

      Reply
      1. Ted

        Iam Kookitaan clan (raven) from Carcross/Tagish , Yukon. Tlingit and Cree and make diffent clan blankets.

        Reply
    2. Lorie

      Hi Theo,

      My mom is interested in possibly purchasing a button blanket.. Can you please message me with your email address so that we can get in touch and see your work + prices?

      Thank you so much.. Lorie

      Reply
  9. Nell

    I bought a beautiful red felt button blanket at a museum when I was visiting the west coast a few years ago, but have been unable to wear it, for any occasion, fearing it would be deemed as a misappropriation of culture. Since I read that each family crest design is full of meaning, not just as a symbol of heraldry, status or family occupation, but is a symbol of deep ancestral attachment to the land. I could never wear it now, knowing what I know and wish I hadn’t bought it. Sadly, it sits in a drawer, wrapped in plastic. brand new, with the tag still on it. I wonder if I should sell it?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Neil
      I understand where you are coming from. It is not uncommon for people to buy regalia or clothing without really knowing the meaning behind it. You could possibly display it in your home though. Hang it on a wall. I would not wear it indeed but it could serve as an art piece. I would not sell it. If you want to donate it maybe though?

      Reply
    2. Meg

      Hi Nell, and Emily,

      Thank you for the article Emily, you seem to present a culture that is not your own in a respectful way and I appreciate that! I am Tsimshian from Kitsumkalum and I was wondering about the button blanket you have, Nell? I ask because if you are looking for somewhere to donate it, depending on what Nation the blanket comes from (if there’s a clan animal on it you could probably find out) there are Friendship Centres and First Nation bands where you could inquire about what to do with the blanket. Or they could tell you more about it so if you are going to display it as art in your home or elsewhere, you will be able to honor the meaning and traditions behind it, and share that with others who might not know about the history of button blankets. There is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation and I am happy for anyone who is appreciative and takes the time to learn about our traditions and ways 🙂

      Reply
      1. Emily Post author

        Hi Meg
        thank you so much for your input. I am indeed originally from the east coast, having lived on the West Coast among the West Coast nations for 9 years. I truly appreciate the traditions and the culture here and I greatly appreciate your comment 🙂

        Reply
  10. Jim Sanders

    Hi – several years ago I made a wall hanging in the style of a button blanket which I have displayed in my home. Now I would like to make an actual button blanket….not to sell but to display and eventually pass along to one of my children. I am not Native American…just an admirer. Would it be improper for me to make a blanket?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Jim
      thanks for taking the time to read my article and to ask. I think there is a respectful way of doing this. I would probably consult with local individuals who have done button blankets. So they can pass along some of the teachings and meanings that are attached to the making of the blanket. I think there is a spiritual aspect to following any of the traditions, may it be making something or attending a ceremony and it is important to know the meaning. You would probably have to offer something to the person teaching you, such as tobacco, when you ask them.

      Reply

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