Photo of Katya MacDonald. (Photo Credit: Scott Bell for the University of Saskatchewan).

U of S student uncovers history of trade blankets

Awarded prestigious scholarship, a student will study how trade blankets have changed Canadian culture on the personal, private level.

University of Saskatchewan PhD student Katya MacDonald has been awarded a prestigious national scholarship to research the history of one of Canada’s most iconic symbols—the trade blanket.

“Canada is a country because of trade blankets,” says history professor Keith Carlson, MacDonald’s supervisor.

“The trade blanket industry linked the huge area between Nova Scotia and British Columbia into an economic sphere that later became an area linked together by government.”

MacDonald has been awarded a $105,000 Canada Graduate Doctoral Scholarship by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. This will support her over three years and fund research into how trade blankets have changed Canadian culture on the personal, private level.

She will visit communities in B.C. and northern Saskatchewan to learn about the changing role blankets played in day-to-day life and cultural expression, knowledge that could alter the way Canadian native-newcomer history is taught.

The role of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canadian history is well known, and much has been written about the trading company’s famous striped wool blankets and the huge profits they made. But what blankets meant to those who relied on them to make a living has often been overlooked.

“By looking at how this affected women’s lives, this research will inject an understanding of gender issues directly into the history of Canada in a way that other histories have been unable to do,” Carlson says.

Once simply household objects made by hand, blankets became commercial commodities sold in large quantities.

“This undermined traditional indigenous weaving industries and the women who performed the valued task of making them,” MacDonald says.

The trade of furs for blankets helped establish relationships between natives and newcomers, as blankets became a kind of currency.

While blankets were still regarded as objects of physical and emotional comfort, they also came to be seen as carriers of a terrifying disease.

“There is only one documented case of deliberate infection, but the suspicion that blankets may have been infected with smallpox and given to Aboriginal Peoples speaks to how central and intimate a role these blankets played in people’s lives and in their relationships,” MacDonald says.

Today in coastal Salish potlatch ceremonies, honored guests are given fine fleece blankets as a symbol of respect and prestige. It is a tradition that carries the same meaning it once did, even though the blankets are now mass produced and sold in department stores.

“These objects are a direct physical link to the past, but they also illustrate that it is impossible to define exactly what is ‘traditional’ because cultures are always changing,” MacDonald says.

She’ll ask how blankets were used in the past and how that differs, or doesn’t, from how they’re used today.

“Preservation is important, but sometimes when a museum displays and collects blankets, it is essentially pulling them out of context, separated from the kinds of interactions they used to be a part of,” she says.

MacDonald, a knitter, can relate to people who crafted blankets.

Now entering the first year of her PhD, MacDonald will continue to build relationships with the aboriginal communities she has visited.

“I want to be faithful to them and their stories while taking a critical, academic stance.”

Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office.

This article first ran as part of the 2010 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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