The fabric of Salish lives

The exhibition presents early, and unique, examples of Salish work.| Photo courtesy of Museum of Anthropology.

Susan Rowley describes Salish blankets as containing the threads of culture and environment, an aspect that emerges from the art of weaving. But for Rowley, curator of a new exhibition of Salish blankets, the threads being woven are more than literal.

“All sorts of reconnections are being made,” says Rowley, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Anthropology and curator of public archaeology at the Museum of Anthropology. “Nowadays you can go to a store and buy sheep’s wool, and it’s already dyed. But think of the past.”

Rowley is speaking of The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving, the exhibition she curated with the help of contemporary weavers, which will be on display at the Museum of Anthropology from Nov. 19, 2017 to April 15, 2018. Showing older Salish blankets in conjunction with modern examples of the art, the exhibition features some of the earliest known examples of Salish weaving in the world.

Weaving together land and culture

Early Salish weavers had a strong connection to their environment that showed in their work.

“There were all sorts of plant fibres that were used in the past: fireweed and stinging nettles, what is known as dogbane or Indian hemp,” Rowley explains. “It’s about the deep knowledge that weavers and dyers and spinners had about the landscape and the use of resources.”

The wool used also showed ties to Salish land and culture.

“Many of the early weavings have mountain goat wool. The women also had a special breed of dog referred to as woolly dogs, [with] a very soft luxurious undercoat. They were specially bred to have this hair undercoat,” she says.

Some of the knowledge regarding weaving was lost during colonization, Rowley clarifies, speaking of the hardships endured by the Salish peoples.

“The transmission of knowledge is broken when a large number of people die of introduced diseases,” says Rowley. “There were also a number of attempts by the Canadian government and the church to break the cycle of cultural transmission. And there was also the introduction of commercial trade blankets by the Hudson’s Bay and other trading companies.”

Nowadays, though, contemporary weavers are trying to recreate older blankets.

“It’s about experimentation,” says Rowley, who points out that some of this trial and error has been successful. “One of the contemporary weavers who’s done a lot of natural dyes was telling me that if you want to use stinging nettle to make a green dye, you have to collect it in the spring. Then you get that good green.”

Reuniting with tradition

Susan Rowley, curator at the Museum of Anthropology, has brought together an exhibition of Salish blankets.| Photo courtesy of Museum of Anthropology.

To Rowley, the blankets are unique and beautiful. She points out that weavers today are still making blankets in the traditional manner using a technique called ‘finger weaving.’ Rowley explains that it’s an unusual type of warping, and she believes that it is not known anywhere else in North America.

“What will really amaze people is the design work, the use of colours, and just the fineness of the work of these weavers,” Rowley says, noting that in colonial times, white settlers also valued the work. “Two blankets that are coming from Scotland were collected between 1828 and 1833 in Fort Langley. It was a big deal for [Europeans at that time].”

According to Rowley, early blankets are rare as well.

“There are very few of them still in existence. For many of these weavings, this is the first time they’ve been back on this coast since they left in the early 1800s. It’s the first time that we know of that the weavings have ever been brought back together,” she says.

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