To the casual passerby, the two woven blankets hanging at the back of the cathedral Narthex are simply two beautiful examples of traditional Musqueam weaving. While they are beautiful, they are two symbols of healing, hope, and of an important step on a journey towards a new relationship.
The blankets, titled Golden Threads from Heaven by Debra Sparrow, the woman who wove them, represent a step on her personal journey of self discovery and healing. They also represent an important step in the Cathedral community’s journey towards building right relations with First Nations.
Sparrow started out as a Coast Salish graphic artist, moved into jewellery design, and more or less fell into weaving. “I grew up with the assimilation process” Sparrow told the Cathedral’s Artistic Associate Donna Juliani – Wong. “We were not allowed to practice our culture. Anything to do with our culture…was not allowed to be practiced,” she said. But every time she saw a traditional object with traditional designs, she would ask herself why certain designs were found on certain objects, and “who were these people? What influenced them? What was their vision?” Through observation she began to understand her ancestors.
The search for her identity took a bit of a twist when her sister Wendy started taking a weaving class. Debra would visit the class, sitting at the back watching. Over time she picked it up. Eventually Debra joined the group. “There were ten women. None of us knew anything about the history of weaving.” What Debra did know was “I wanted to be a part of the world that defines me as a Musqueam woman.”
So Debra moved into the world of traditional Musqueam weaving.
When Debra was approached by the Cathedral community to create two blankets to hang in the Narthex she hesitated. Her upbringing was impacted by the reality of residential schools and assimilation. The Church was not a positive place for Debra and she initially told the Cathedral’s Artist-in-Residence, Thomas Roach that weaving for a church was not something she thought she could bring herself to do.
But then she took time to reflect. “I thought deeply about Jesus, and where he’d be,” Debra told cathedral parishioners gathered at the installation of Golden Threads June 15. Debra said she felt Jesus would not be happy about what his followers had done to First Nations.
She agreed to weave the blankets and decided to leave the design up to God. She thought of using two colours – white and gold – to represent “the purity of the intent of what God wants of us,” she said. Other than that, Debra said she stood in front of her loom and prayed. Slowly, the design took shape, a design she says was given to her by God and the spirit of her ancestors.
One blanket represents “the beginning of who we were,” life before European contact. The second blanket represents the journey to a new way of life, moving into the future. The straggly warp threads hanging off the ends of the blankets represent what happened over 150 years of contact with settlers.
The blankets were officially installed in narthex of the Cathedral on June 15. Darren Xu, a friend of Debra’s, led a quartet in performing music he composed that was inspired by the blankets. Members of the cathedral community prayed over the blankets. Debra presented Chief Edward John and Tsleil-Waututh Elder Margaret George with replicas of her blankets to recognize the strength it took for them to “come forward in this house.”