The revival of Coast Salish weaving
Story and photos by Tessa Vikander
The art of weaving Coast Salish blankets is a skill that’s thriving today, thanks to dedicated teachers like one husband-and-wife team from Squamish Nation who recently launched a book about their craft.
Hereditary Chief Janice George (Chepximiya Siyam’) and Willard Joseph (Skwetsimeltxw) have committed their lives to sharing the ancestral skill that was almost lost after European contact.
The couple launched their book, Salish Blanket: Robes of Protection and Transformation, Symbols of Wealth, to about 100 guests during an event at the Museum of Vancouver on August 10.
In between signings, Joseph told the Sentinel about when he and George met Susan Pavel, the woman who would become their teacher, at a weaver’s gathering in 2003.
“Susan had a weaving, a tunic for sale, at this gathering,” Joseph explained. “My wife asked her how much for the tunic. And Susan, she told us later, that it’s something that she doesn’t always say to people [but she said] ‘I could sell it to you, or I could teach you for the same money.’ So that really was the 180 in our life.”
Soon after, Joseph and George began travelling down to Washington state for one weekend a month to learn with Pavel. She taught them both how to weave and how to teach others the traditional skill.
Since then, Joseph and George have become full time weavers and teachers, ushering a new cohort of weavers into their studios every year.
Prior to 2003, when George and Joseph started weaving and teaching, very few people wore blankets at ceremonies, George said. Woven blankets, an intricate part of the Coast Salish spiritual and economic system, are used at ceremonies and celebrations as a marker of status and protection.
“Every ceremony, you will see a weaving now,” she says. “After we started teaching, everyone started wearing weavings…everybody wants to wear them.”
But their mark on the traditions of Coast Salish weaving goes far beyond the studio and their students. The new book is the culmination of years of research, and the pair travelled the world to examine woven Coast Salish artifacts in far off museums.
“I found it very spiritual,” Joseph says, recalling his time with the rare museum acquisitions. “We wish we could have taken them home with us.”
The book was 10 years in the making, and its launch wasn’t a simple networking event of wine and cheese. It was a full out celebration that included singing, drumming, dancing, a showcase of woven blankets and a feast.
Near the end of the event, George spoke about the importance of the Salish Blanket book.
The book “is like a marker, of how far we’ve come in our teaching,” she said.
“It’s honouring the ancestors…it’s a responsibility. What I love about [the book] is that it’s a perfect mixture of academic, spiritual and technical [teachings] all woven together.”