COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — At the end of his show, Nick Offerman set down his guitar near his personally handmade ukulele, took a bow and headed off the stage at the Cowlitz Ballroom.
But the singer, actor and comedian best known for his role on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” didn’t make it to the stairway.
Two Cowlitz Indian Tribe members dressed in the style of their ancestors guided Offerman back to center stage. They unfolded a multicolored blanket and wrapped it around the entertainer’s shoulders as another tribal member told the audience that the blanket was bestowed as a gift.
Offerman seized the moment and clutched the blanket. Then he peered down at one of the blanket corners and spotted a tag.
“It’s a Pendleton!” he exclaimed.
Offerman was only the latest Cowlitz Ballroom entertainer to be draped in the tribal blanket. Others include singer LeAnn Rimes, comedians Amy Schumer and Jay Leno as well as the 1970s-era rock band REO Speedwagon.
The gifting of a tribal blanket woven at Pendleton Woolen Mills can’t yet be called a tradition, as the casino between Ridgefield and La Center is barely two years old and the ballroom opened last year. At this point, it’s more of a practice. It was started by tribal member David Barnett, who was instrumental in the casino’s origins and took the steps necessary to create the blanket, mostly to be given to the tribe’s 4,200 members.
Barnett says he recognized the history of Pendleton’s relationships with tribes and the company’s prowess at tribal blankets when he sought its assistance last year in weaving a Cowlitz blanket. In so doing, the Cowlitz joined other Native American tribes that have had blankets created by the privately held, venerable Portland brand.
Pendleton Woolen Mill was incorporated Feb. 16, 1909, in Pendleton, Ore. Machinery was purchased through a bond issue in Pendleton along with money from a family deeply tied to the wool industry. C.P. Bishop, family patriarch, was Pendleton Woolen Mill’s first president.
Previously a merchant in Salem, Ore., Bishop had married Martha Ann “Fannie” Kay, who’d been a crucial adviser to her father in the operation of his Thomas Kay Mill in Salem, Ore. According to Pendleton company history, Fannie vowed to have her own mill when her eldest brother inherited the Thomas Kay Mill. Through her efforts and others, woolen manufacturing returned to eastern Oregon in the form of Pendleton Woolen Mill.
The company credits Fannie Kay Bishop for guiding the mill’s formative development, in large part through raising three sons who would one day become Pendleton’s owners.
One of her three sons, C.M. “Clarence” Bishop, purchased the Washougal woolen mill in 1912.
Today, Pendleton is in its sixth generation of family ownership.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were more than a thousand woolen textile mills in America. Today, there are three and Pendleton owns two of them — in Pendleton and Washougal.
Pendleton’s relationships with Native American tribes is almost as lengthy as the company’s history. Local tribes were the company’s first customers, beginning with the first blankets produced in September 1909.
“Pendleton and the Tribes have a mutual respect for each other,” the company said in a statement that accompanied a recounting of its history, “bound together by a legacy of 110 years.”
The relationship solidified in 1910 with the first Pendleton Round-Up rodeo. Organizers of the first event wanted tribes to participate but were unsure that would happen. They sought Roy Bishop’s help. Bishop, one of Fannie Kay Bishop’s three sons, persuaded area tribes to attend the 1910 Pendleton Round-Up. Tribes have attended ever since.
Pendleton’s first blanket designer, Joe Rawnsley, often spent months with local tribes, learning the their preferences for elements in their blankets. The tribal blankets were constructed then as now in the jacquard method, creating woven patterns in a textured woolen fabric.
Today, the company produces blankets for tribes not only in the Pacific Northwest but across the U.S., said spokeswoman Linda Parker, who declined to reveal the number of tribal customers.
“Typically, custom blankets are not for commercial purposes,” the company said in a statement. “They are given to honor events on life’s journey: birth, marriage, coming of age, graduation and even death, as well as special celebrations and gifts.”
Those special-run tribal blankets are not available for public sale. But Pendleton produces another type of tribal blanket that is.
Working with Native American artists, the company produces blankets and donates a portion of sale proceeds to the American Indian College Fund. A College Fund Collection blanket is introduced each year; most retail for $319. In 1990, Pendleton established an endowed college fund scholarship, valued now at more than $1 million. The American Indian College Fund has assisted more than 1,000 students, the company says.
In early April, Pawnee-Yakama artist Bunky Echo-Hawk unveiled this year’s College Fund blanket. Echo-Hawk presented the first blanket to his friend, Wieden + Kennedy co-founder David Kennedy, a longtime supporter of the College Fund. The unveiling and presentation took place at the advertising agency’s Portland headquarters.
Weaving of tribal blankets takes place at the mill in Pendleton. But the finishing of the blankets — including trimming and sewing on fabric edges as well as tribal patches — takes place at Washougal.
The Washougal mill is a juxtaposition. Its exterior walls, interior furnishings and rugged machinery are colored in drab shades of brick, concrete and steel. But the rolls of yarn in huge rolling baskets, churning through looms and stacked as finished, woven products are a cacophony of exploding color.
About a dozen workers prepared jacquard blankets of varying designs during a recent visit. Some trimmed huge rolls of the fabric to their 64-by-80-inch size, while other workers sewed the edging and still others folded the blankets, attached product information and placed them into Pendleton boxes.
In a nearby corner office, a green file cabinet held drawers full of stacked patches awaiting future attachment to blankets. Nearly all the leather-like patches held details about a tribe, the blanket designer and other information.
The patch for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe features the fish-river-mountain tribal logo, the number of the blanket in that particular run and the names of the blanket artist — Jeanne St. Martin — and the guy who paid for the blanket, David Barnett.
Barnett, a tribal member, is credited with laying the groundwork that led to the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s partnership with the Mohegan Tribe and the establishment of ilani on the 156 acres that serve as the tribe’s reservation. The deal has made Barnett, a real-estate developer, even more wealthy, though he declines to share details.
However, he said he’s paid $150 apiece to Pendleton for each of the 2,000 blankets he’s commissioned – $300,000 in total.
He wants to give a blanket to any tribal member over age 18 who wants one. It’s his way of giving back, he said, to tribal members who witnessed the nearly 20-year effort that resulted in the reservation and the casino.
Barnett said he and St. Martin started working with Pendleton about three years ago on the project.
The blanket contains elements he wanted: The tribe’s logo and slogan — “We Are The Forever People” — at the center and a zig-zag pattern on two edges representing the tribe’s weaving and basket-making prowess. The blankets also contain homages to sweat lodges, horses, eagles and tribal members.
“I wanted her to draw them to look like they came from hieroglyphics in caves that were buried … when they built dams on the Cowlitz River,” Barnett said. “I told her what I wanted and she delivered.”