American Indian Culture
Tribes Affected: Pantribal
Significance: American Indian trade blankets were manufactured by non-Indians and used as a commodity in trade dealings between the U.S. government and Native Americans.
The earliest known use of European and English commercially made blankets in North America was in the fur trade with American Indians in the late seventeenth century. The use of the trade blanket as payment for treaties between the U.S. government and Native Americans began in 1776. Small manufacturers of blankets were established in the United States by the early 1800's. About the same time, trade stations were being established across the country for the nonprofit exchange of goods between the government and the Indians. By the 1820's, however, private businesses had replaced the government-controlled trade, and the trade blanket became a profit-making commodity. The market for trade blankets continued to expand with the opening of the West by the railroads, bringing more competition among manufacturers and a greater variety of colors and designs.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were five major U.S. manufacturers (one of which was Pendleton) that produced only trade blankets. By the end of the twentieth century, Pendleton was the only company still in business producing "trade" blankets.
The finely woven, double-faced blankets were used by Indians as clothing that provided both warmth and a means of expression. They replaced the use of robes made of animal hides by the Plains Indians and the hand-woven blankets of the Navajo; they were also used as highly valued gifts. Blankets conveyed different moods, depending on the style in which they were worn. They were thrown over the shoulder, belted at the waist, wrapped around the waist, or worn as a hooded robe. Blankets were also used as infant and child carriers, covers for the bed, and saddle blankets. The blankets also were a measure of wealth or status and could be used as statements of tribal unity or individual identity.
There were six general categories for design in trade blankets. These include the striped, banded, and nine-element designs used in chief's blankets, as well as center point, overall, and framed designs. Bright earth tones plus white, blue, and black were the predominant colors and were often woven into intricate design patterns. Design elements include motifs such as the cross, swastika, arrow, zig-zag, and banding that formed geometric patterns symbolizing mountains, paths, clouds, stars, birds, and the four cardinal directions. Some designs were believed to express stories and myths and were made for Indians by using Indian symbols and colors.
Trade blankets continue to be highly valued by Indians and non-Indians, both as collectibles and as usable blankets. They became known as "Indian blankets" long ago because American Indians made them a distinct part of their lives and cultures.
Diane C. Van NoordSources for Further Study
Coulter, Lane, ed. Navajo Saddle Blankets: Textiles to Ride in the American West. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2002.
Friedman, Barry, with James H. Collins and Gary Diamond. Chasing Rainbows: Collecting American Indian Trade and Camp Blankets. Boston: Bullfinch Press, 2002.
Chilkat Blankets; Dress and Adornment; Trade; Weaving.
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