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Many of the First Nations of the Canadian West Coast collect the bark of young red and yellow cedar to produce mats, capes, blankets and hats. This mat may have been made by the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations (formerly Nootka) who were known as expert whale hunters. Traditional dress for the Nuu-chah-nulth is a cedar-bark or fur cape, pinned at the right side; women also wore a bark apron extending from the waist to the knees. A mat like this one is probably too stiff to be a cape, but it could have been used as a room divider, a doorway banner, or as a ceremonial ground cover.

Where was this textile created?

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The Pacific Coast

Mat, by Johnnie Kit-Elswa
North America: Canada, Western Canada, British Columbia; Nuu-chah-nulth people
c. 1880
Cedar bark, woven and painted with natural dyes
168 cm x 69 cm
T88.0786 Textile Museum of Canada

A killer whale takes centre stage on this woven mat of red cedar bark strips. The image of the whale flanked by two wolf heads is painted on the mat with natural dyes. The whale and wolf heads are drawn in the graphic style of the Northwest Coast: the artist draws a subject’s outline and fills it with abstract shapes. These internal shapes may play roles in a myth that is being represented– notice the face on the whale’s tail, for example – or they may show the sides and the back of the creature.

This mat came to the Textile Museum of Canada after a lengthy detour in the British Isles. How it made its way there remains a mystery. After an English owner purchased it from a Portobello Road dealer in the 1970’s, she framed it and displayed it in her home for many years, until she allowed it to hang in an exhibition at Canada House. She then put it up for sale through an auction house and the Textile Museum of Canada was able to purchase it with Federal government help, and bring it back to Canada.

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