Charting Material Memories: an ethnography of material and visual responses to woollen trade blankets in Canada, the USA, and Aotearoa/New Zealand

Fiona Macdonald, Department of Anthropology, UCL

One of the most conspicuous connections that links three nations (Canada, the United States, and Aotearoa/New Zealand) is witnessed through material culture—those objects of everyday life. Through trade, gift, theft, immigration, and migration, the things people have created for centuries have been crossing the landscape since time immemorial—today these objects are situated in diverse cultural contexts. Particular to a colonial experience since the 1600s is a relationship with woollen trade blankets. Woollen trade blankets produced in the United Kingdom since the seventeenth century were invaluable commodities disseminated with colonial missions to be gifted and traded with indigenous peoples in both Canada and the United States of America by agents such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, and via the South Pacific Trading Company to Aotearoa/New Zealand. Evidence of these trade exchanges can be seen in colonial visual culture and archival records.
In our current historical moment, woollen blankets create tangible connections between these three nations through aesthetic works created by contemporary artists and cultural practitioners in indigenous and non-indigenous communities. It is an unnoticed fact that the specific woolen trade blankets under investigation in my doctoral project were originally manufactured in Oxfordshire, UK until the turn of the twenty-first century. In the absence of any anthropological investigation into woollen trade blankets to date, this project contributes as a contemporary ethnography that seeks to understand how and why woollen trade blankets have remained unconsidered, yet are clearly visible cultural and artistic productions, and consequently relate to addressing anthropological issues of identity, circulation, agency, and memory in both indigenous and non-indigenous communities.
My research captures how the nature and presence of these blankets affects knowledge production in indigenous and non-indigenous communities today; and how this knowledge has a transnational reach. Over a four hundred year period that culminates in the present, the woollen blanket has shifted from being a trade item to a commodity of status and artistic expression in many Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian communities of Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia along the Pacific Northwest Coast, as well as the urban centers of Canada, the United States, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. In order to carry out this research I am working with the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, Alaska as a Visiting Scholar. This research will foreground the role of material culture in understanding how the interconnectedness to memories and experience within indigenous communities in my three field sites is made manifest. The fluidity of my research echoes the mutability of woollen trade blankets, thus my project is designed so that, as an ethnographer, I follow a material object that is not bounded.
This project is designed to harness multi-sited research as a necessary method to broaden understanding of material culture. The selection of multiple field sites—micro and macro—as paradigms for a comparative case study is based on preliminary fieldwork for my MA studies where I observed that woolleb blankets were consumed at distinct historical moments with divergent social consequences in both spaces but more so within specific communities (Blanketing a Nation: Tracing the Social Life of the Hudson’s Bay Company Point Blanket Through Canadian Visual Culture, 2006). This research will be framed as an investigation of the relationship between woollen trade blankets and the individuals who ‘renew’ them for public consumption (Kuechler 2009) in order to understand what questions are implicit in woollen trade blankets that encourages artists to produce explicit knowledge—cultural and regional—through specific materials.