9-year-old Conner Clifton asked, dark eyes riveted on the gift. Within moments Cindy Clifton, Tlinglit, had her son wrapped in the button blanket and was blinking away her tears as he stretched his arms.
The sun symbol Clifton and her sister, JoAnn Price, appliqued on the blanket was perfectly centered on the boy’s back. The 540 buttons the sisters and Clifton’s teenage daughter, Lacey, stitched into place caught at least as much light from the winter day as was on Conner’s face.
“It all started when my father passed away two years ago,” said Clifton. She explained that part of the family’s preparations for the potlatch held on the one-year anniversary of her father’s passing was making a button blanket, 11 button vests and 10 button bags.
“My sister, JoAnn, did the work since she is starting a regalia business. The blanket was designed and constructed in traditional Tlinglit style by JoAnn to honor our Auntie Evelyn who has done so much for our family. [JoAnn Price works under her Native name, Kusee’yi. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for prices and photos.] After Mom went home, I went to my sister’s house and we made two last vests for my children.” The blanket and each of the vests have the family crest, an eagle with wolf paw prints, which has been passed down through Clifton’s female line since the Tlinglits are matriarchal.
Button blankets have a mystical power about them. Old ones made a century or more ago, housed in the National Museum of the American Indian, still have the pungent smell of cedar smoke in them, and the dentallium and abalone outlining the crests reflect a soft, pearly light that transports a soul back to another time.
Perhaps this history spoke to Clifton. All she knew was that she wanted to spend her February vacation making a button blanket for her son. “Monetarily, these blankets are not cheap,” she said. “And they are very love labor intensive. If you give someone a gift of these blankets, it’s an honor to get one. Now I just look at one and think, ‘Somebody loved that person; somebody has a lot of time and energy into that blanket.’ Tlinglit tradition says that individuals cannot make their own blankets. They have to be sewn for them. A person has to be thought of enough to have someone put their energy into making one.”
First, Clifton went shopping for red and black boiled wool at $30 a yard. Then she drew a three-inch sun design and enlarged it to “fit his little back so that it showed when he put his arms out.” Finally, the sisters put their hearts and minds together and the sewing began.
“I was working on the sun design while JoAnn was putting the blanket together,” said Clifton. “I chose the sun design for Conner instead of using our family crest because I’ve always called him ‘Son.’ So first we had to figure out how to do the positive and negative. You have to cut out pieces of the red in order to see the design, so if you have a very intricate design you have to simplify it, simplify it. You don’t want to lose the design, but you have to have something you can work with.” Clifton remembered a lot of ironing. “Wool can take the heat and moisture – it’s the modern synthetic fabrics that can melt – but you still want to make it look crisp and clean and lay right.”
Because many traditional button blankets were decorated with crests owned by the family that conveyed rank and status, before the person gifted could wear their blanket they had to give a potlatch where those gathered attested to individual’s right to display the crest. Potlatches and button blankets were everywhere in 1895 after Natives had started trading with the Russians and British and anthropologist Franz Boas traveled the Northwest coast. “Most of these are light blue blankets with a red border set with mother of pearl buttons,” wrote Boas. “Many are also adorned with the crest of the owner, which is cut of red cloth and sewed on to the blanket.”
But over time, the government pressured indigenous peoples to assimilate into white culture by banning potlatches. The cultural renaissance that began gathering force in Indian county by the 1970s, however, was fueled by a 1986 traveling exhibition of button robes to the Adelaide Festival Centre in Australia. From that point, a new generation of women increasingly turned with pride to their heritage.
“Normally, blankets need to be presented at a potlatch or a pow wow,” said Clifton. “The maker of it has to present it to the receiver. So right now I am looking for a pow wow where my sister and I can present the blanket to my son.”
As Wendy Ellsworth wrote in Bead and Button magazine, “Native people still value button blankets as a means of portraying historic rights and privileges, communicating a shared identity, and designating the wearer’s place in today’s quickly changing world.” Clearly, Clifton and her family are of this mind.