By Kelly O’Connor
On November 19th, the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at UBC unveiled Layers of Influence: Unfolding Cloth Across Cultures, transforming the Audain Gallery into a veritable forest grove of ornate and delicate textiles. The new exhibition features culturally, spiritually, and religiously significant selections from Western Canada’s largest textile collection, on display through April 9th, 2017 in Vancouver, BC.
“From birth to death, people are wrapped in cloth. We wear clothing for warmth or protection from the sun, but also as an expression of political power, social prestige, pride in identity, and spiritual protection,” notes Dr. Jennifer Kramer, MOA Curator and Associate Professor of Anthropology at UBC. “What we value and wish to emphasize is mirrored in the clothing we wear.”
The cloth used in rites of passage, celebrations, and ceremonies embodies cultural values, identity, and connection to community. “It’s the hands of your ancestors you’re meeting,” says Kramer. Across cultures, treasured heirlooms share the spirit of generations, and some are living artifacts still in use by family members today.
Salish blankets are worn by community leaders as signs of social prestige and civic responsibility. In 1991, inspired by an ancestral robe, sisters Debra and Robyn Sparrow of the Musqueam First Nation created a Sister Blanket (on display at MOA). During Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in 1997, Chief Councillor Gail Sparrow wore this robe when she met with President Clinton. The original blanket, now in the Smithsonian collection, was made with mountain goat wool, cedar bark, and wooly dog hair.
Wild mountain goat wool was difficult to gather in quantity, but the Salish Wool Dog was once an integral part of Pacific Northwest coastal life, bred and raised specifically for its “fleece.” The long-haired white dogs were deliberately separated from other village dogs, and small “flocks” of wooly dogs were confined in on islands or in caves to prevent crossbreeding. They were fed salmon year-round and sheared like sheep to remove their thick fleece for use in textiles.
In 1828, a report from Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Langley described flocks of shorn dogs being transported in canoes. As Coast Salish Territory was colonized, Hudson Bay blankets and domestic sheep eventually replaced this unique Indigenous textile industry, and the Wooly Dog interbred with other dogs, losing its specific qualities. Less than 100 years after European contact, the Coast Salish Wooly Dog was effectively extinct. The last identifiable Wooly Dog died in 1940.
The exhibition also includes an intricate mountain-goat wool Chilkat dancing robe, possibly owned and worn by Kaigani Haida Chief Kasawak. It was woven by women and features a diving whale motif. Creating these unique textiles by hand requires patience and skill in addition to physical, emotional, and divine energy to fuel the process of weaving. William White, Tsimshian master weaver, says the power of the weaver “goes into the robe—that spiritual power that is put on it when you wear that robe. We believe that it comes alive.”
The Museum of Anthropology is Canada’s largest teaching museum, inspiring understanding of and respect for world arts and cultures. Layers of Influence includes over 130 examples of culturally significant textiles, showcasing a range of materials, techniques, and adornments, including hand-dyed batiks of Bali, appliqued button blankets from BC’s Northwest Coast, jaspe weavings of the Mayan people of Guatemala, and much more. Unfurled, the lavish display of fabric reveals the sophisticated workmanship of each piece and creative use of materials like silk, wool, feathers, and bark. Go to [moa.ubc.ca] to plan your visit or browse the MOA’s collections online.