This early 20th century blanket was created as a ceremonial dance robe that imparted beauty and drama through the movement of its substantial fringe. According to Cheryl Samuel in her book The Chilkat Dancing Blanket, the Tlingit name for this type of garment is Nakheen and was interpreted by George T. Emmons, ethnographic photographer and U.S. Navy Lieutenant, in his 1907 monograph The Chilkat Blanket, as “the fringe about the body.” Nakheen (or Naaxiin in Haida) also denotes this particular style of dance robe.
The Nakheen dance robe was worn by the Chilkat and Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and other Northwest Coast peoples of Alaska and British Columbia for various occasions, including the Potlatch. The curvilinear shapes shown in the above image are articulated by a method called “weft twining,” where the weft threads (moving across) are twisted around the warp threads (running vertically), manipulated by using both hands on a vertical frame loom starting at the top and working downward. Historically, this twining was done by women who worked faithfully from full-scale designs derived from Tlingit paintings and wood carvings; these designs were created by men and painted in black on pattern boards (made of cedar planks). Because of the bilateral symmetry of the overall image, only one half of the design was needed on each pattern board; women would then execute the mirroring image.
The abstracted pictorial elements of Chilkat dance blankets, depicting geometrically stylized animals, signify clan crests and thus communicate familial kinships. This particular design is known as “diving whale,” one of the most commonly seen on Chilkat dance robes. As stated by the curator responsible for bringing in this acquisition:
Some theorize that this ubiquity (of design) points to the possibility that the pattern was reserved for those outside the clan system, or for blankets made for trade or sale. This robe is remarkable for the intensity of its color and may be an indication that it was purchased soon after its completion and made for trade.”
Only one Chilkat dance blanket exists in the MFA, Boston’s collection, with the exception of a photographic print by Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868–1952). Posts about other examples of Native American dance robes at the MFA are forthcoming, including a historic MFA-commissioned work that was recently accessioned – stay tuned!
Objects in Brief is a randomized showcase of the MFA, Boston’s encyclopedic Textile and Fashion Arts collections. A featured object is indicative of the author’s curiosity and chosen so she may learn about its material and structural properties, function, history, and greater story. These “quick studies” have led to more in-depth explorations posted in A Closer Look.