Three Button Blankets (Tlingit or Haida, 1865-1890 and Kwakwaka’wakaw, 2016)

Button blanket (Native American, Tlingit or Haida, 1865–80). Fulled wool; twill, embroidered with shells and mother-of-pearl buttons. Mary S. and Edward Jackson Holmes Fund (2007.498). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Contributing to the long-standing practice of fashioning ceremonial blankets to be worn and danced at the Potlatch and other community gatherings, are the uniquely eye-popping, light-reflective button blankets created by Natives of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The MFA, Boston has three exceptional examples, one of which is presently on view.

By the mid-19th century, a shift had occurred from the use of twined cedar bark as a local fiber material to the adoption of trade blankets manufactured by Hudson’s Bay Company as a foundation for embellishment. In combination with solid-color and patterned trade cloth sewn to the dark wool surface of these blankets, dentalium shells and mother-of-pearl buttons were used to partially or fully outline the figures of beavers, frogs, birds, whales and other animals as well as mythical creatures, signifying and declaring family crests (namina). The central image of a beaver in the blanket shown above is rendered in dentalium shells—a small ocean mollusk native to the Pacific Northwest coast and used historically as a form of currency by tribes throughout much of the region and beyond. The fulled wool blanket, comprising the field in which the beaver sits, the red stroud cloth on three sides, and the mother-of-pearl buttons adorning the inner borders were all materials acquired through European trade. It’s the oldest of the three blankets featured here and regarded as one of the MFA’s most significant acquisitions in 2007, according to its accession record. This rare example of the button blanket form also represents the first textile from the Native Northwest Pacific coast to enter the collection.

Button blanket (Native American, Tlingit or Haida, 1870-1890). Wool twill, appliquéd, and embroidered with mother-of-pearl buttons, printed cotton plain weave. The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection (2015.901). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The MFA acquired two more button blankets in recent years. The example shown above, accessioned in 2015 and dating to the general time period of the beaver blanket, is thought to feature the mythical thunderbird. This object is presently on view in Gallery LG34 (Native North American Art) and I encourage you to visit the Museum to experience its power firsthand. Look closely and you’ll observe the maker’s choice of a variety of buttons that differ in size and texture—some carved, some smooth—to crystallize the dramatic image of this supernatural creature. Its presence stops me in my tracks every time and is well worth seeing!

In the span of a year, the most recent acquisition came in 2016, facilitated by our Assistant Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts, Jennifer Swope. It represents the first contemporary Native textile to be acquired by the Museum. The maker, Maxine Matilpi (Mantlidas), is Kwakwaka’wakw of the Coast Salish culture based in the southern part of the Pacific Northwest Coast. This blanket, featuring an Orca (Killer Whale) crest is the result of a collaboration between Matilpi and her late partner, John Livingston (1952–2019), a non-indigenous born artist who achieved mastery in the Native woodcarving forms of the region. As partners, Livingston designed the blanket crests and Matilpi created the border designs. Rendered in mother-of-pearl buttons on the Orca blanket, Matilpi’s icons represent the human face, copper, longhouse, paddle, and flower blossoms. Elizabeth Steinbrueck, owner of Steinbrueck Native Gallery to which this blanket was consigned, has shared with us the meaning behind Matilpi’s visual vocabulary:

Button blanket (Native American, Kwakwaka’wakaw), 2016. Made by Maxine Matilpi (b. 1956), Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Whale crest designed by John Livingston (Canadian). Wool plain weave, mother-of-pearl. Gallery Instructor 50th Anniversary Fund in support of the Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection (2016.378). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“The red borders represent the planks of the longhouse.
The longhouse on each side signals that all people of the Northwest Coast each came from one.
The dark field surrounding the crest is the door to the longhouse.
The human faces are generations of Kwakwaka’wakw that came before.
The copper represents wealth.
The paddles are designs befitting the Killer Whale.
The flower blossoms represent the four seasons.
The plaid fabric is for the smoke hole of the longhouse.”

This patch of plaid, smack dab in the top center of the Orca blanket and positioned to align with the back of the neck and shoulders when worn, is a distinguishing element echoed in the earlier button blankets (printed floral for the thunderbird; plaid for the beaver). This patterning effect in contrast with the bold, graphic nature of the overall composition was intriguing to me when I saw Maxine’s blanket for the first time. To my eye, these fabric patches evince a softness that makes sense to me in light of its symbolic meaning, and one of the more interesting elements that’s been carried over from the mid-19th century into contemporary times by Matilpi.

Detail of Orca button blanket with plaid fabric for the smoke hole. (Native American, Kwakwaka’wakaw), 2016.
Detail of Thunderbird button blanket with floral print fabric for the smoke hole. (Native American, Tlingit or Haida, 1870-1890).
Detail of beaver button blanket with plaid fabric for the smoke hole. (Native American, Tlingit or Haida, 1865–80).

The image of ethereal smoke transitioning between realms as it rises from the heart of the Kwakwaka’wakw longhouse, a space where generations of Maxine Matilpi’s clan assembled for the ceremonial Potlatch and other community gatherings, also calls to mind her ancestors’ faces that we see peering out of the upper corners of her blanket, wide with toothy mother-of-pearl smiles as they witness the re-telling of their stories, enjoined in song and dance. I think about the act of wrapping one’s cultural architecture around the human body in such intimate alignment, and all that it means to animate and unite these attributes in real time.

Maxine Matilpi lives and embodies this animating practice. Beginning at a young age, she was exposed to the customs of her tradition by her parents, grandparents, and other elders in her community. As a child, she was assigned the job of sorting buttons by size; this expanded to cutting appliqué designs and border trims for the dance blankets as she achieved mastery. Later, she assisted her mother, Jesse Matilpi (Kwakwaka’wakw name Wadidi; maiden name Speck) as the organizer in the backroom of the longhouse during the Potlatch: an important role that is passed on from generation to generation. Matilpi came to understand and appreciate her active participation in these activities as the experienced manifestation of an unbroken line of teaching—preserving for present and future generations the legacies of her people. Her formative upbringing is a key factor in her personal commitment to carrying these traditions forward.

(Left photo): John Livingston is shown restoring totems at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, with his wife, Maxine Matilpi. Photo courtesy of Cantor Arts Centre at Stanford University. Click here for web source. (Right photo): Kwakwaka’wakaw artist Maxine Matilpi. Click here for web source.

To date, Maxine Matilpi has created a significant collection of regalia that is worn and danced at ceremonies, public dance performances, and exhibited at museums. A special project that she achieved during the mid-1990s truly inspires me. Matilpi’s mother (and teacher) wished for all of her ten children to have their own set of ceremonial regalia. Upon her mother’s death, Matilpi fulfilled this wish by completing more than twenty sets of blankets, aprons and other types of regalia for members of her family to use at a Matilpi-Speck Potlatch. In keeping with a vital tradition of gift-giving, Matilpi’s sharing of wealth within her Native community is a defining aspect of her prolific practice.

Click button blanket images for descriptions and collection data on

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.