It also became a matter of necessity as the
whites moved west, killing buffalo and displacing many tribes.
Without the buffalo hides, the Plains Indians were forced to
rely on traders for their blankets.
The first trade blankets were very simple, featuring
solid colors and a few contrasting stripes. The thick, striped Hudson
Bay Company blanket was made in England and was traded by
European trappers to the Blackfeet and Northern Plains Indians.
As a quality wool blanket became an important trading commodity
for trappers and explorers, American companies such as Racine
Woolen Mills in Wisconsin, Buell in Missouri, Capps in
Illinois, and the Oregon City Mill in Oregon began production
of woolen trade blankets. Then in 1896, Pendleton Woolen Mills in
Pendleton, Oregon became the only mill founded specifically to
produce trade blankets. Each woolen mill had its own distinguishing
characteristics, although their designs were similar. The Oregon
City blankets were very intricately detailed, while the Capps
blankets were simpler and more suited to Plains Indian tastes.
The first Pendleton blankets incorporated either stripes, blocks,
rectangles or crosses. In 1901, the introduction of the Jacquard
loom affected the designs dramatically, enabling the mills
to create more intricate zigzag designs.
By the late 1800s, most Indians had settled
on reservations; trading posts became the focal points for food,
jewelry, clothes and, of course, blankets. Through the trading
posts, the English and American woolen mills found a built-in
market for their blankets, the quality and designs of which were
appreciated by the Native Americans who became the mills' best
customers. Eager to please their Native American customers, many
mills sent designers to live among the Indians in order to learn
what designs and colors would appeal to the different tribes
and pueblos across the United States and Canada. From the beginning,
Pendleton produced high-quality blankets that eventually became
the favorite Indian trade blanket. By the end of World War II,
all the American woolen mills had gone out of business with the
exception of Pendleton.
Throughout America, many non-Indians have grown
up knowing the name Pendleton--because an aunt would have nothing
but Pendleton jackets, because grandparents used Pendleton
lap robes in their drafty automobiles, because "Indian-style" Pendleton
blankets were draped over the backs of couches or folded at the
foot of a bed. And because of their design, throughout the country
they were called "Indian blankets," even though they were neither
designed by Indian craftsmen nor were they Indian-made. The name
Pendleton itself became a universal and generic descriptor for
any of the distinctively patterned blankets, even those made
by other mills.
Today there is a resurgence of interest in older
trade blankets. The pre-World War II blankets that are especially
sought after by collectors were light, warm, inexpensive and
easy to replace . . . and were therefore really used.
As a result, few have survived in good condition. The renewed
interest in trade blankets has also created a new market. We
are seeing an abundance of coats, couches and teddy bears made
from old and new blankets. In addition, exciting new designs
are being created by Pendleton. Notably, Santa Fe artist Ramona
Sakiestewa recently became the first Native American to design
a series of blankets for Pendleton.
There is such irony in this colorful story in
which Native Americans are both the inspiration for the designs
of American trade blankets as well as the blankets' most important
consumers. But long before Europeans introduced commercially
made blankets, and long before there were American trading posts,
blankets were an integral part of Native American life and survival.
As Bob Kapoun states, "Blankets have become a statement of American
Indianness." The soul of this understanding reverberates in one
of the most poignant statements ever recorded in American history.
In his surrender speech delivered in 1897, Chief Joseph of the
Nez Perce said:
"It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children
are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run
away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows
where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to
have time to look for my children and see how many of them
I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear
me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From
where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."