By Kurtis Armstrong-Sinclair
VANCOUVER – From now until April 15, the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) is hosting The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving in collaboration with the Musqueam Indian Band in a showcase of traditional and contemporary weaving that spans over 200 years of Salish tradition.
From 1885 to 1951, the Government of Canada imposed a law called the Potlatch Ban. This restriction prohibited First Nations from practicing important ceremonies and traditions that have been mainspring in their culture for many generations. These laws were put in place to erase the culture of the First Nations and assimilate their people into the melting pot that is Canada. One of the traditions threatened was loom weaving. Residential schooling made it near impossible for the community to pass down the craft from mother to daughter. Contemporary weavers, like Debra Sparrow, have had to learn how to weave by studying only photographs and patterns from books. The last known weaver, Sparrow’s great grandmother, passed on in the early 1930s. Now, after 85 years of cultural oppression, the Coast Salish people are working passionately to reconnect with their heritage and revive their lost craft.
“We are not going to stop until we wrap the city of Vancouver in blankets,” says Sparrow.
The museum has a dedicated viewing room for the weavers to study the blankets up close – a rare opportunity for the artists, as these blankets have travelled from as far as Finland to get here. Many have been rolled up in storage for centuries, and this is the first time the public has been able to view them.
Salish weaving is a truly ancient practice. According to oral tradition, blankets have been woven since the beginning of time. They were traditionally made from the hair of a now-extinct breed of woolly dogs, specifically bred by the Salish for their long white fur and exclusively fed salmon. The breed disappeared in the early 1900s when the Hudson’s Bay Company introduced cheaper sheep wool blankets produced en masse. Dog wool blankets could not compete with the company, and the breed soon became extinct. The people also spun wool from the hair of mountain goats and used dyes from the plants they found all around them. Woven items are still used in ceremonies as regalia and are often given as gifts to the community during potlatches. These utilitarian works of art are immeasurably valuable; there are lessons of integrity woven into the fabric of each piece. There is a need within the culture for this craft to exist. It connects the Coast Salish to who they are as a people. The designs created are focused and mathematical, intricate patterns that affirm value within Salish culture and give them a place to set their feet down. The weavings represent the beauty of the land and contain the connected memories of many generations.
Contemporary blankets take up to five months to create, so we can only guess the amount of time that was required in the past. Weavers see this methodological work as a time of connectedness and meditation: the loom is a space for them to connect with their heritage and ancestors after so many years in the dark. Although the old blankets were treated with arsenic as a preservative, all of the contemporary blankets are used frequently in ceremony.
To be in spirit is to be inspired. The Salish, inspired by the world around them, acknowledge their responsibility to the planet they live on. This respect for the Earth and its resources is a foundation of their identity. As such, The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving is not an exhibit, nor is it archaeology. These pieces have been brought together in order to educate us on who the Coast Salish are as they fight for their rights and values in the colonial legacy that is Canada.
The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving runs at the Museum of Anthropology until April 15. Debra Sparrow will also be offering periodic weaving demonstrations on the loom.