The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving rediscovers a once-lost art

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      At the Museum of Anthropology at UBC to April 15, 2018

      At the media preview of The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving, Musqueam artist Debra Sparrow declared that the gallery in which the exhibition was installed was, at that moment, “a very honourable place”. Honourable, she said, because it held some of the oldest Salish weavings in existence. Dating from the early 1800s and borrowed from museums in England, Scotland, Finland, and the United States, these treasured blankets are works of great integrity and knowledge, Sparrow said. As she stood in a temporary exhibition space at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, surrounded by precious examples of a vibrant art, she added, “This is a room where our ancestors are gathering.”

      Most of the loaned works on display (five in MOA’s Audain Gallery and five in its Textile Research Lab) were woven from hand-spun mountain-goat wool, often supplemented with the hair of a woolly dog, now extinct. Patterns are mostly geometric and include zigzags, diamonds, and checkerboards, as seen in a finely woven blanket from the collection of the National Museum of Finland. Pure white blankets are also on view here, as in an openwork example whose origins are unrecorded. Now in the collection of the Peabody Museum, Harvard, it is known to have arrived in Montreal before 1819.

      Also incorporated into the weave were bird down, cedar bark, and other fibres, derived from local plants such as stinging nettle, milkweed, and “Indian hemp”. For countless centuries, Salish blankets were created for both ceremonial and utilitarian purposes. Worn as robes, they were valued as symbols of authority and social standing. They were also seen as objects of prestige and exchange, mountain-goat wool, then as now, being a precious material. Precious, too, were the intense labour and consummate skill invested in the weaving.

      Woman weaving a blanket at Songhees, Vancouver Island, 1847, by Paul Kane (1810-1871). Interior of a Lodge with an Indian Woman Weaving a Blanket, watercolour and pencil on paper. Bequest of H.J. Lutcher Stark, 1965. Stark
      Museum of Art, Orange, Texas

      Records of early Spanish and English explorers attest to the beauty and technical accomplishment of the woven blankets the Salish people wore at the time of contact. By the early 20th century, however, colonization; government suppression of indigenous languages, cultures, and ceremonies; and an abundance of cheap trade blankets had all eroded traditional carding, spinning, dyeing, and weaving techniques.

      Previously handed down from mother to daughter, weaving disappeared or became dormant. So did knowledge of intricate patterns and their symbolic meanings. In the 1960s, however, Salish women in the Fraser Valley came together to relearn indigenous weaving practices, forming the Salish Weavers Guild in 1971. Weavers from other Salish nations followed, resulting in today’s intense production and ever-expanding knowledge base.

      Spurred by a request from Musqueam councillor and master weaver Wendy Grant-John (who spearheaded the renewal of Musqueam weaving in the 1980s), curated by the MOA’s Susan Rowley, and shaped by consultation with a number of Salish weavers, the show also includes historic works from the MOA’s collections. Modern weavers, from 1960 forward, are represented here, too, with rich examples of blankets, cloaks, and dance regalia by Virginia Adams, Barbara (Cayou) Marks-McCoy, Krista Point, and Tracy Williams, among others. Early in the weaving revival, Marks-McCoy wove a richly patterned and subtly hued blanket by studying photographs of a work collected in Fort Langley in the 1800s and now in the collection of the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. That historic blanket is one of the works now on view at MOA, and it is thrilling to see it in close proximity to Marks-McCoy’s.

      Complementing the weavings are historic photographs, a 1928 silent film of Harriett Johnnie carding, spinning, and weaving a blanket, and ancient spindle whorls in stone and bone. In the middle of the gallery is an old wooden loom, which Debra Sparrow will work on periodically during the run of the show to create a new blanket. In the meantime, a large and colourful blanket she wove in collaboration with her sister Robyn Sparrow is hung near the entrance to the museum’s Great Hall. It is a tribute to their mother Helen and, in a sense, to all the mothers and grandmothers who for so many centuries passed their knowledge and their understanding along to younger generations of weavers. “Our ancestors speak through this weaving,” the label copy says. “Through all our weavings.”

      Debra Sparrow and Robyn Sparrow wove this blanket in 1991.