Skip to Content
Chief's blanket woven from mountain goat wool with killer whale design | Donald Ellis Gallery

Naaxiin Blanket

Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

ca. 1840

mountain goat wool, yellow cedar bark

length: 68"

Inventory # CN4367


donated to the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate, BC


Jack Curtright, Tacoma, WA
Howard B. Roloff, Duncan, BC
George Terasaki, New York, NY
George Everett Shaw, Aspen, CO
Ziff Family Collection, New York, NY


George Everett Shaw and Klaus Kertess, Art of Grace and Passion: Antique American Indian Art, Aspen: Aspen Art Museum, 1999, pl. 100


Aspen Art Museum, Art of Grace and Passion: Antique American Indian Art, December 16, 1999 - April 16, 2000
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 2009 - August 2017 (long term loan, L.2009.45.2)

The traditional social system of the first nations inhabiting the Northwest Coast was based upon a clear hierarchy that defined nobles as the chiefs of the great houses – possessors of fishing waters, hunting grounds, large harvests, abundant oil, smoked fish, copper, canoes, and woven blankets. Naaxiin blankets are among the most valuable belongings to the Indigenous inhabitants of the Northwest Coast. Signifying rank and status, they are more accurately described as robes, worn on important ceremonial occasions as part of their owners regal apparel. Indeed, during a potlatch the hosting chief would distribute the highly valued Chilkat blankets only to the most high ranking among his guests. The right to wear them is an inherited privilege; similarly, the crest figure which adorns the design field has to be owned by the wearer. The design of the present robe has been identified as belonging to Chief Gunyaa by present-day artists of the Haida Nation.

In the central design panel we see an orca crest figure in black, evenly balanced against the negative white space as well as secondary designs in yellow and blue-green.The whale’s head is seen at the bottom of the composition; the stylized face in the center is depicts his body. Flanking the face are designs representing the pectoral fins, while the tail, spread wide to show the flukes, covers the width of the panel's upper section. The textiles warp extends beyond its weft to form a long fringe, which would sway pleasantly while being danced.

This type of weaving appears to have originated with the Tsimshian-speaking people living along the Skeena and Nass Rivers. From them this type of weaving spread to the other Northwest Coast tribes. The Chilkat division of the Tlingit has in historical times been the only tribe still producing this type of textile; hence the commonly accepted term of Chilkat blanket. The designs for these textiles spun out of mountain goat wool are painted by men on wooden pattern boards, which the weaver, a woman, has before her as she weaves. Their production follows a complex process during which the weaver completes one design section after another. Designs are carried out in white, black, yellow, and blue-green. The wools were dyed black with hemlock bark, yellow with wolfclub moss, and blue-green with copper oxide. The white was the natural colour of the washed wool. The borders were finished with braiding and the long ends of the warp, thickened by tying in additional strands, formed the fringe. The most common theme has been traditionally called the killer whale pattern, which decorates also our present work. Among the Tsimshian, Tlingit and Haida people the theme of the Killer Whale is a reference to the first potlatch in the world, which was given by Konankada in honour of the Raven. The whale's head is at the bottom; the stylized face in the center is his body. Flanking the face are designs representing the pectoral fins. The tail, spread wide to show the flukes, covers the width of the panel's upper part.

Essential to the “lecture” of a blanket is understanding the positive-negative space principle that lies behind the design: “The spaces between positive shapes must be considered part of the design and were carefully controlled. This is most easily seen in a Chilkat blanket, where the negative shapes are often taken for the positive primary design by those not familiar with the fact that the primary design is black. When the blanket (where the negative and tertiary shapes and secondary designs predominate because of their color) is compared with its pattern board (which has a predominantly black design), this relationship is easily seen.” (Holm, B., op. cit. p. 80).