Weaving a story: Artist Jesse Henderson honors his Chippewa-Cree heritage

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AUTHOR: Jody Rave Lee of the Missoulian

When the nation’s premier woolen company asked artist Jesse Henderson to
design a Pendleton blanket, he took it seriously.

“I was trying to be sensitive to my people,” said Henderson, a
Chippewa-Cree from the Rocky Boy’s Reservation in northern Montana. “It’s
not just another pretty blanket. I set out to show a good representation of
us.”

The Missoula resident met with a Cree Canadian spiritual leader. They went
into a sweat lodge and prayed about how to respectfully represent the First
Nations Cree in Canada and the United States using the designs of
thunderbirds, drums and the sun.

With the blessings of tribal spiritual leaders, Henderson has since
designed a blanket that depicts the Cree communicating with the Creator.
The design is well on its way to becoming a best-seller in the Pendleton
Woolen Mills Legendary Blanket series.

Each blanket in the series is given a name. And each blanket design is
based on a specific tribe’s beliefs, traditions and ceremonies. The
best-seller to date reflects the horse culture.

“ ‘Celebrate the Horse’ has been a home run,” said Robert Christnacht, a
senior manager for Pendleton’s home and blanket division. “It exceeded our
expectation by a factor of two or three.” Yet, early blanket sales already
have Henderson’s “Sacred Dance” running neck-and-neck with the horse, which
was designed by in-house artists rather than as a commissioned piece.

Since 1976, the Legendary series has introduced one blanket a year. And
each year, one is retired. The White Buffalo Calf Woman blanket was taken
off the market in 1996. It’s now enjoying a secondary market life selling
for about $1,000, said Christnacht.

Indian blankets have a storied history dating back to the late 19th
century. Barry Friedman details the history of trade blankets in his book,
“Chasing Rainbows.” The colorful blankets typically were of a geometric
design and created by whites to appeal to Indians.

Pendleton, a Portland, Ore.-based company, started weaving blankets in
1896. Prior to World War II, 800 woolen mills operated in the United
States. Today, only a handful of mills remain in operation. Although
Pendleton’s blanket appeal has spread far and wide, Natives still make up
half the demand.

“We’re the No. 1 blanket retailer in the state,” said Barry Cubas, an owner
of Desmond’s clothing store, where the “Chief Joseph” Pendleton blanket
outsells all the Legendary blankets, reflecting national sales trends.
Cubas credits design, color and variety for the sales from Montana to
Japan.

Babbitt’s Wholesale in Flagstaff, Ariz., is one of the top Pendleton
sellers in the United States. Helene Babbitt, whose husband’s family
started in the trading post business more than a century ago, estimates
that some 40,000 Pendleton blankets are sold annually in the Southwest.

“Almost all my business is to Native customers,” said Babbitt, who is
located near the Navajo Reservation. Once a popular trade item, the
blankets remain integral to Native traditions, often used as “giveaway”
items and to honor others.

“It’s a tradition,” Babbitt said. “It’s so incorporated into the culture.”

Henderson took his commission to design a Pendleton blanket to heart. His
two final designs proved so popular with the company, they used both. The
second design is being used on a children’s blanket, called “Chiefs Robe.”

Eight of the Legendary blankets are now available in stores, where they
retail for $188, on average. Henderson’s “Sacred Dance” will be available
in stores beginning March 25.

Meanwhile, Henderson is counting his blessings as an artist. He credits
legendary artist C.M. Russell for being an inspiration that led the
Chippewa-Cree to develop a style that is becoming recognized across the
United States.

Southwest Arts magazine named Henderson one of the top young Native
American artists in the country in 2005.

Henderson’s work commands attention through style and composition.

“His warm and richly detailed style of Western art, along with unique
sensibilities, makes this year’s blanket exceptional,” Christnacht said.
“We know it will be a favorite for the story it tells, but also simply for
its beauty.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Reporter Jodi Rave Lee can be reached at (406) 523-529 or at [email protected].