In the Coast Salish economy (past, present and future), wealth is held in our knowledge and lineage and no where is this more evident than in the mastery of Coast Salish woven wool blankets. In my doctoral research, when I asked the question “what is Coast Salish wealth?”, blankets came up again and again. They are iconic symbols of potlatch wealth that fascinated anthropologists for decades. I saw them in photographs, heard about blankets in stories, and read about the extensive work that goes into making them. But this ultimately is not the story of wealth that satisfies me.
I was gifted a blanket from my father woven by Musqueam weaver Debra Sparrow, and wore it to my PhD convocation in Auckland this September:
Of course, the significance of this blanket is tied to the work that I put into obtaining the degree, but what’s equally as important is the creation of the blanket as a symbol of a lineage of work to come. This blanket has witnessed two milestones in my career – a presentation and convocation – but it is already beginning to create its own record of ancestral work as it was worn in a welcoming ceremony for the Māori All Blacks in Vancouver last week.
I went to see Debra Sparrow with a Māori weaver, Jo Shelford (seen below) to thank Debra for her work to bring the blanket that I have to life. While we were visiting, she told stories about weaving, including that traditionally Musqueam blankets wouldn’t be possible without the work of their “upriver” relatives (that’s us, the Sto:lō) who had access to the original mountain goats (and their wool) up in the mountains. Musqueam is downriver at the delta of the Fraser River. She affirmed the interconnected nature of not only our communities, but testified to the Coast Salish economic ties that are embedded within the blankets.
When we refer to the wealth and innovation of blankets, we are referring to the exchange of wealth and abundant resources between families, communities and nations to secure the materials to create the blankets. This exchange represents good relations and access to varied networks both inside and outside Coast Salish communities. We are referring to the knowledge economy at every stage of their creation: gathering, preparing, dyeing, and spinning the wool and the patterns, stories and intellectual property captured in its’ aesthetics that reflect local and cross-regional variation.
Referencing a piece commissioned by the BC Teachers’ Federation, Debra Sparrow said:
When you look at this piece, I hope you look beyond the beauty and you see the mathematical, scientific, and social aspects of who we are, instead of just looking at it as art. The mathematical components are in there. The scientific components are there. A deep understanding of our natural environment is there, as well as our social histories. We don’t always want to be seen in only one place, under the category of art.
After the piece is woven, the blanket creates wealth once it is put to work. Every event in which it is used, and every person who wears it either contributes or detracts from the wealth of the blanket depending on whether the work that was done, was done in a good way. Debra told me that she weaves with clear intention, thinking about the work that I had done, and the work to be done that is unique to this blanket. The innovation that is woven into the blanket is its potential that is not yet fully realised, and the unfolding of greater wealth to come.
I know that weaving could be part of our economy, as it was in the days gone by. It wasn’t just women doing this beautiful work. The whole community was connected to the work. Weaving was a family project, and the weavings might have been used for a potlatch or ceremony, heightening the success of that family or that community. If you made a hundred weavings and gave them away at your potlatch, you were held in high esteem in your community. You were looked up to. If the weavings were really incredible, then you would be held in even greater esteem. We hear time and time again that if you don’t know who you are, or you don’t know where you come from, then you’re nobody. You’re nobody if you don’t have a history, if you can’t relate to it, talk about it, or communicate it. So, the weaving is our gift back to us, and to our community. It’s amazing to be involved in the time that we are, to be bringing back the values and a sense of success, through our own creative process.
While I was in Auckland crossing the stage, my two-year old niece Ayla was also learning about Coast Salish wealth and innovation, something she quite comfortably embraced as little ones so beautifully and naturally do.
Source: UBC Museum of Anthropology, Musqueam Weavers Source Book, http://moa.ubc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Sourcebooks-Weavers.pdf