Seasonal Salon

Wrap Me In the Sacred

I had the honor of officiating at an inter-religious hand fasting two weeks ago. The bride was of First Nation heritage (Native American) and the butch groom was Celtic. I represented the Butch’s Celtic heritage and White Bear represented the bride. The ritual flowed perfectly between the two traditions. An elder and I created sacred space, set the intent and I called the elements as White Bear called the directions. At the end of the ceremony we wrapped the couple in a new blanket. Only then are they presented to the community as a wedded couple. As we wrapped this beautiful blanket around the couple I was memorized by the magnificence and the symbolism it represented.

At the end of reception the bride presented me with a quilt. It is beautifully handmade. Part of Schon’s (my partner) heritage is Blackfoot. Since Schon has chosen to learn more and participate in the Two Spirit Community, I have learned many things about First Nation people. One of the loveliest is the art of weaving and traditions around the giving and receiving of blankets. As a German woman, spinning and weaving has also been a part of my heritage. I was amazed at the common links between mythology and belief systems around the use of this craft.

In the Navajo Nation blankets are scared. Made long before the Europeans arrived their blankets were made on a vertical wooden loom using a shuttle to weave colored threads into large geometric designs. Most of the Navajo Nation and the First Nations of the southwest used hand-spun cotton thread. When the Spanish brought sheep here, the Nations switched to using wool. The chilkat blankets of the Tlingit people (known as one of the finest finger weavers) are amazing. The most resent traditions of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakoda/Assiniboine have created star quilts which have spread throughout the Great Plains Nations.

The blanket has always been an integral part of First Nation life. Historically, First Nation people wore blankets made from woven plant fibers, animal hides and fur and eventually from fabric woven by hand from wool or cotton. Long before the advent of European invaders, First Nation people traded blankets in exchange for other goods; therefore, to accept commercially made blankets from Europeans in trade for beaver pelts was a natural transition. Before the quilts the Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda Nations made blankets that were quilled, beaded and painted buffalo hide. When the buffalo herds were exterminated this craft largely died out, but some Plains tribal artists still make buffalo robes and blankets today from the hides of animals raised in captivity.

Quilting was one of the crafting techniques that The Nations borrowed from European traditions and made it their own. Star quilts are made of a mosaic of cloth diamonds shaped in the traditional eight point star design of the Plaines Nations. As the quilt was placed in my arms, I got chills up my spine. Not only was this a gift from the heart, it was a gift of her culture to me. The beauty of the quilt, the amazing amount of time and effort, and the love woven into it surpasses all. To this day, the rituals tied to blankets are part of First Nation life from birth to death: blankets are given to celebrate births, marriages, christenings. The First Nation people use blankets to pay off debts, to show gratitude, or to indicate status. Blankets are used as temporary shelter, as curtains or awnings, for warmth and for adornment. First Nation people cradle their babies in blankets, they dance in blankets, and when they die, often they are buried in their blankets.

The invading Europeans also used the First Nations love of blankets to kill them. The deliberate inoculation of blankets with small pox was used to wipe out entire nations. In 1763 in Pennsylvania, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces wrote in the postscript of a letter to Bouquet the suggestion that smallpox be sent among the disaffected tribes. Bouquet replied, also in a postscript, "I will try to inoculate the[m]...with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not get the disease myself." To Bouquet's postscript, Amherst replied, "You will do well as to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this exorable race."

On June 24, Captain Ecuyer, of the Royal Americans, noted in his journal, "Out of our regard for them (i.e. two Indian chiefs) we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect." From this type of inoculation smallpox spread throughout the First Nation tribes along the Ohio River. (Stearn, E. and Stearn, A. "Smallpox Immunization of the Amerindian.", Bulletin of the History of Medicine 13:601-13.) It is so very hard for me to realize that something as beautiful as blankets where used to annihilate entire nations. Not acknowledging the fact would be just as offensive.

Cole (a Cree Nation member who helped me learn about blankets and First Nation Culture) reminded me of the sacredness of the ordinary in our lives. Not only were blankets necessary for warmth and protection for both our cultures, they are also a symbol of companionship, love making, tenderness and commitment. At one Pow Wow I watched as a courting dance was called. On to the floor went the couples who were wrapped in blankets. Cole, laughing, told me that being asked to “dance me outside” was an invitation to become more intimate. Nowadays, it is “I’m going to town and taking a blanket with me.”

Navaho, Pueblo and Teotihuacan people all worship and tell stories of Spider Woman, She who sits at the center and weaves creation. She who is the female force weaves all nations, all tribes, all families, and all peoples into Her web. As a woman of German decent a lot of my mythology is wrapped around spinning and weaving. Spinning and weaving is the realm of Holde. Each year for the twelve days after Solstice, the Goddess rides out checking the work of spinners and weavers. If the spinning and weaving was done well Goddess rewarded the spinner by adding threads of gold (the basis for the story Rumpelstiltskin) for the messy spinner, Goddess tangled the threads. For my German heritage and Schon’s First Nation (Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan) winters demanded the necessary craft learned for survival and also as an art. Under blankets we cuddle and coo. Under blankets we make up, make love, and discuss intimate details of our lives. Under a blanket bodies created heat to both warm them and excite them.

Today, there are entire stores for quilters. Most of the quilts I have seen made were either from material recycled (old shirts, ties, jeans, etc) or from much deliberated cloth and colors specifically matched to the person receiving the quilt. I watched my friend Alan make a beautiful traditional wedding ring quilt in colors specifically chosen for his goddaughter. There is a patience that surrounds quilt makers. All the planning, cutting, blocking, piecing and sewing creates a work of art and a work of the heart. So, tonight as you cuddle under your favorite blanket, think of the generations of women who have woven their tears and joys into our lives through blankets. Be warm. Be comforted. Be at peace.

Category: Winter Solstice 2005