West Coast button blankets: gorgeous and meaningful
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!
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.
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.
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 enough. 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.
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!
Leaving you with a short video about the button blanket including a wonderful song and dance with a button blanket.
All my Relations