Blan­ket State­ment

The Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany blan­ket is a sym­bol of colo­nial Canada, but for Métis peo­ple in the Prairies, it also stands for com­mu­nity, cer­e­mony and sur­vival

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Chelsea Vowel

The Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany blan­ket is a sym­bol of colo­nial Canada, but for Métis peo­ple in the Prairies, it also stands for com­mu­nity, cer­e­mony and sur­vival by Chelsea Vowel

Our re­la­tion­ship to these blan­kets in­volves com­plex dy­nam­ics and re­sis­tance to colo­nial en­croach­ment, none of which is true of the môniyâw in his bougie HBC sweater.

When it was time for my el­dest daugh­ter’s com­ing-of-age cer­e­mony, we were liv­ing in Mon­treal, far from our tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory of man­i­towsâkahikan (Lac Ste. Anne, Al­berta). I hadn’t had the op­por­tu­nity grow­ing up to ac­cess rites of pas­sage, be­cause like so many of our cer­e­monies, they had been driven un­der­ground for gen­er­a­tions and had fallen out of prac­tice as a re­sult.

I felt it was im­por­tant to at­tempt a mod­i­fied four-day cer­e­mony, cul­mi­nat­ing in a feast, even if it had to be car­ried out in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment. Women and Two-spirit peo­ple were in­vited to share their teach­ings, medicines and ex­pe­ri­ences, rather than bring ma­te­rial goods. I had been ac­cru­ing gifts over the years in an­tic­i­pa­tion of this cer­e­mony—gifts in­tended, in tra­di­tional fash­ion, for the in­vi­tees who would be cel­e­brat­ing this event with us. As is also tra­di­tional, on the fourth day I gave my daugh­ter a new pair of moose-hide moc­casins, and she was blan­keted in a Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany point blan­ket.

On the Prairies, the HBC multi-stripe point blan­ket—white wool with colour­ful bands of green, red, yel­low and navy blue—is highly prized among Métis and First Na­tions on this side of the medicine line. When we want to hon­our some­one for their achieve­ments, or give them a gift dur­ing a cer­e­mony, blan­ket­ing is a shared cus­tom, and not an in­ex­pen­sive one! A dou­ble-sized wool HBC blan­ket runs for about $400 these days.

The blan­ket can be a hand-made star blan­ket (if there were a hi­er­ar­chy, star blan­kets would clearly be at the top), a Pendle­ton or one of the many colours of HBC point blan­kets out there (with the mul­ti­striped HBC blan­ket be­ing the most in­stantly rec­og­niz­able). Of­ten, these wool blan­kets are fash­ioned into capotes, or jack­ets, and you will see Métis, Cree, Dene, Sik­sika and other In­dige­nous peo­ples cut­ting a fine fig­ure in their HBC out­er­wear.

Liv­ing in the east, how­ever, I re­al­ized that the way these blan­kets are per­ceived by In­dige­nous peo­ples can be quite dif­fer­ent to how we re­late to them in the west. Some In­dige­nous peo­ple flat-out see them as a colo­nial sym­bol, and as­so­ciate them with the pu­ta­tive “plague blan­ket.” Given the his­tory of the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany in this coun­try, I cer­tainly don’t dis­agree with that view­point. I do balk, how­ever, when peo­ple in­sist that the re­la­tion­ship we have with HBC blan­kets in the west some­how means we are more col­o­nized—an ac­cu­sa­tion I have heard on more than one oc­ca­sion.

I think there is a mis­con­cep­tion, par­tic­u­larly in re­gards to the Métis, that our at­tach­ment to the HBC blan­ket comes from em­ploy­ment with the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany. There were in­deed Métis em­ployed by the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany (just as there were var­i­ous First Na­tions em­ploy­ees), but ar­guably, the Métis were more heav­ily in­volved with the North West Com­pany, who were in di­rect com­pe­ti­tion with the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany. Even not­ing this ob­scures a much more com­plex dy­namic within which, con­trary to tales of racial­ized com­pany loy­alty, the Métis played off var­i­ous colo­nial pow­ers (in­clud­ing the mis­sions) against one an­other to se­cure bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, rates of pay and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

If not loy­alty to the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany, and if not col­o­nized sym­pa­thies to­ward a sym­bol of op­pres­sion, then why are these blan­kets so val­ued in the west? The fact is that wool is warm even when wet, dries quickly and is easy to sew. These are all im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tions in climes that can reach tem­per­a­tures of mi­nus-40 de­grees Cel­cius in far too many months of the year. When worn-out buf­falo hides, prized by set­tlers for their soft­ness, were bought up in bulk from their be­mused own­ers, and as new hides be­came in­creas­ingly scarce due to the colo­nial project of de­lib­er­ate ex­ter­mi­na­tion, these wool blan­kets be­came sought-af­ter and ver­sa­tile trade goods. At first these blan­kets were gifted or traded to In­dige­nous men con­sid­ered im­por­tant by colo­nial author­i­ties, but even­tu­ally re­dis­tribu­tive prac­tices among In­dige­nous peo­ples saw them worn more widely. A fash­ion tra­di­tion was born, and has con­tin­ued in the Prairies to this day.

There is a catch, how­ever. Just be­cause these blan­kets orig­i­nated with set­tlers, it does not mean that they be­long to set­tlers in the way they “be­long” to Métis and First Na­tions here in the west. Our re­la­tion­ship with these blan­kets stretches back many gen­er­a­tions, and in­volves a his­tory that is fraught with com­plex dy­nam­ics and re­sis­tance to colo­nial en­croach­ment, none of which is true of the môniyâw in his bougie HBC sweater.

Frankly, we have earned the right to wear these items, and we do so with a sense of un­der­stated irony that can­not be trans­lated into set­tler con­texts. We can curl our lips at multi-stripe HBC beach blan­kets, toques and, yes, even the ex­pen­sive wool coats, when they are pa­raded about by clue­less Cana­di­ans, while at the same time gift­ing these blan­kets to our most beloved com­mu­nity mem­bers. All with­out suf­fer­ing from the ver­tigo of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. ■

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