For Native Americans, blankets have not only been garments worn for warmth, but also a source of artistic expression and a valuable trading commodity that provided economic self-sufficiency. Blankets were worn most commonly draped around the shoulders much like a cloak.
Blanket making has been found in virtually all native North American tribes. Even before cotton production was developed in the thirteenth century C.E. , Native Americans in the Southwest made blankets from the feathers of domesticated turkeys. In ancient times mastery of blanket weaving was often transmitted from one neighboring tribe to another. In the 1500s the Navajo tribe of the Southwest learned blanket weaving from the Pueblos, who made blankets from the wool of Spanish sheep. Navajo blankets became known for their bright colors, geometric patterns, and depiction of animals. Made according to the custom of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska, a fringe blanket of cedar bark fiber and goat wool required six months to finish.
Native Americans used blankets for many purposes. Nez Perce mothers living in the Northwest, for example, carried their infants by slinging them over their shoulders in a blanket. Women in the Pueblo tribe of the Southwest wore black blankets, or mantas, and left their left shoulders bare during rite of spring ceremonies. Pueblos also used embroidered blankets to display animals killed by hunters. Additionally, the Navajos of the Southwest weaved blankets for horses as well as riders with symbols meant to protect them on their journeys.
Indian blankets were precious trade commodities. A blanket with three beavers pictured on it, for example, meant the blanket was worth three beaver pelts. The Hudson's Bay Company, founded in Canada in the late 1600s, traded North American Indian blankets to Europeans. The establishment of frontier trading posts by white settlers in the 1800s allowed tribes to exchange their products to European Americans for other goods. Although a source of income for Native Americans, blankets retained a deeper meaning. For many tribes blankets were a symbol of wealth and status.
Green, Rayna, and Melanie Fernandez. The British Museum Encyclopedia of Native North America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.
National Geographic Society. World of the American Indian. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 1974.
Schiffer, Nancy N. Navajo Weaving Today. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1991.