Made primarily from mountain goat wool and the inner bark of the red or yellow cedar, the Chilkat blanket or "dancing blanket" was worn like a cape on ceremonial occasions. The Tsimshian people are generally considered to have originated its manufacture without any tools other than a simple bar loom. The bold designs in black and white were traditionally streaked with yellow. This practice spread to the Tlingit and, to a lesser extent, to the Haida and Kwakiutl. Important items in the Tlingit economy, Chilkat blankets were prized adornments for the wealthy and frequently gained importance as heirlooms. The Tlingit name for the Chilkat blanket was Naxein, meaning "fringe about the body." Fringe was added along the sides and bottom of the blanket after weaving was complete. The name Chilkat blankets arose simply because early European traders mainly acquired them from the Chilkat, a subdivision of the Tlingit. These blankets became increasingly scarce in the early 20th century when George Emmons, an anthropologist, recorded the complex Tsimshian myth that explains the origin of the blanket. Emmons estimated only 15 weavers remained in 1907. Jennie Thlunaut of Klukwan was considered the last of the traditional weavers, having learned the skill from her mother in the 19th century. She made more than 30 blankets and six tunics prior to her death at age 96. Before she died, she conducted a two-week workshop in Haines, Alaska in 1984.

A Victoria weaver and an instructor at Lester Pearson College, Cheryl Samuel (b. 1944) was introduced to the Chilkat blanket by Seattle artist Bill Holm. She later gathered more than 450 photographs, drawings and illustrations by Sara Porter for The Chilkat Dancing Blanket (Seattle: Pacific Search Press, 1982; Univerity of Oklahoma Press, 1990). "The Chilkat Dancing Blanket is without doubt the most complete analysis and detailed description of a single type-example of tribal technology in the literature," wrote Holm, Curator Emeritus, Northwest Coast Indian Art, The Burke Memorial Museum, Seattle. "It is entirely possible for one with the desire and the patience to follow Cheryl's meticulous descriptions and Sara Porter's exact diagrams to produce a Chilkat blanket, something that can rarely be said for published descriptions of very much simpler techniques....Most will come away with new and deep appreciation of both the technical and artictic wonder of the Chilkat blanket and Cheryl Samuel's remarkable analysis."

Cheryl Samuel has also travelled to Leningrad, Copenhagen and London to examine six of the remaining eleven 'robes of power' which predate the better known Chilkat blankets made by Northwest Coast Indians. Worn by the wealthiest nobles, patterned in black and white with yellow highlights, these robes allowed Samuel to reconstruct the weaving style once used by Aboriginal people on the north coast. The Raven's Tail (UBC Press, 1987) is her book explaining her research and a description of nine twining techniques. Cheryl Samuel has taught Ravenstail weaving at the University of Alaska and she has participated in an Apprenticeship Program project as a master artist teaching Haida artist Evelyn Vanderhoop.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Anthropology" "Art" "First Nations" "Indianology"