My first visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico was in 1999, as part of my research for an exhibition of Native American trade blankets. I had arranged the trip around my daughter Kristen’s schedule so that she could join me at the Rainbow Man shop after she attended the Annual Federal Bar Association Indian Law Conference. My interest in trade blankets stemmed from a very moving ceremony during her graduation from Dartmouth College in 1994. Each student receiving a certificate in Native American studies was wrapped in a beautiful Pendleton blanket. Since then I felt compelled to learn more about these magnificent blankets and their importance to native people. One of my resources was Robert Kapoun a collector and proprietor of the Rainbow Man shop who had written an excellent book on the history and tradition of trade blankets.
Reading Language of the Robe I had learned basic facts about the history and evolution of trade blankets over many generations and I now understood the complex weaving techniques involved in their manufacture. In the 1600s Europeans first used blankets as a means of exchange with Native Americans. American companies including Pendleton began machine-manufacturing of blankets for sale to native and non-native consumers in the mid 1800s. The double-shuttle Jacquard loom, developed in France in the 1840s, allowed for the complicated negative and positive designs found on opposite sides of most blankets.
I also learned that the symbolism of trade blankets is just as complex as these weave structures, and is therefore sacred and not openly discussed. Trade blankets are not only valued for their beauty and warmth as garments or “robes” but more importantly for their spiritual significance during rights of passage such as birth and death and every other important occasion in between (such as my daughter’s graduation and several years later during her marriage ceremony).
My research eventually led me to Dale Chihuly, the renowned glass artist who was not only an avid collector of vintage trade blankets, but who had created a series of glass cylinders inspired by the mostly geometric patterns found in the blankets. The resulting exhibition, Wrapped in Tradition: The Story of American Indian Trade Blankets opened at ATHM in 2000 and traveled extensively throughout the country.
This past month my daughter asked me to again meet her in Santa Fe where she was now the co-chair of the 35th Annual Federal Bar Association Indian Law Conference. With Kristen’s young son and daughter in tow we returned to Bob Kapoun’s shop where he continues to collect and sell vintage trade blankets. As I picked-up the gently worn blankets, I could feel the stories of their previous owners woven into the faded threads, but I knew that they would never fully reveal all their secrets.
Director of Advancement