The button blanket that 11-year-old Leah Nelson will wear at Celebration this year is a symbol of firsts and lasts: the first time she’s ever danced at the event, and the first and last button blanket her grandma Lynn Alme ever made.
Michael Nelson, Leah’s father and Lynn’s son-in-law, first knew that his daughter would need her own button blanket when she decided that she wanted to dance for her grandfather at Celebration. Michael’s father, Charles Nelson Jr., passed away before Leah could dance for him but she remained determined to dance in his honor instead. “When we had the idea for Leah’s button blanket, (Lynn) was the best seamstress that we knew and she seemed a natural to ask for help with it,” he said.
Lynn had owned a quilt shop in Wisconsin for over 20 years and had become renowned for her American style quilting, but she had never made a button blanket before.
“Originally when I brought up this sewing idea to Lynn she thought it could be done in a weekend,” Michael said with a laugh.
She hadn’t yet realized the enormous amount of work that goes into making a button blanket. Leah’s blanket ended up with over 550 buttons sewn by hand and with a hand-applied crest.
“I originally bought a kit from a Tlingit lady in Seattle,” Michael said. “It was kind of really close to a step-by-step and when one had questions I would reach out to artists that I knew in Juneau and Petersburg. My father was originally… a Haida from Craig. So I would reach out to folks that my father knew when we got to a point where we were stuck or had questions.”
Leah spent multiple weekends with her grandma working on the blanket together. She said that all added together, the time spent would equal about a week straight.
“I had to learn how to sew buttons on by hands because I only knew how to sew them on by machine,” she said.
Lynn had always had medical issues and months into the project became hospitalized. She was scheduled for heart surgery but remained determined to finish the blanket. She brought it with her to the hospital and continued to sew, accompanied by her daughter and Michael’s wife, Michelle Nelson, and several of Leah’s aunts.
Michelle said of her mother’s resolve, “She knew how important it was to Mike and to Leah to complete it and what it meant to them to bring the two heritages together. Her sewing, which is something she learned from her grandma, and the Native tradition that she learned from (Leah’s) grandfather and her father. She wanted to be a part of it and try to bring as many family members into it, so everybody could share in the tradition of it.”
Lynn worked on Leah’s blanket right up until her heart surgery. Michael said, “Michelle’s mother was really determined. Come hell or high water she was going to finish that blanket.”
Michelle reminisced, saying, “Growing up, one of the quotes we heard from her a lot was ‘it’s tradition and you don’t mess with tradition.’ She was very big on family traditions and things that meant a lot as family.”
The first time that the family saw the button blanket complete was in the hospital right before Lynn’s surgery. That night she passed away, leaving her family with the blanket as a momento. Michelle said that it was a wonderful experience all the way around.
“Leah will always have a blanket that will remind her of her grandfather and she’ll always have it knowing it was one of the last projects she worked on with her grandma.”
Michael said that the blanket represents the particular work ethic that his family has always upheld: “Nothing can get us down and one way or another you’re going to find a way to get a job done.”
“It might just take you a while to get it done,” Michelle added with a laugh.
Both sides of the Nelson family came together on this project.
Michael said, “We shared my father’s culture with my wife’s family. All the questions that arose and knowing how the kids spent so much time with their grandparents… There’s something enjoyable about watching your kids be with your parents doing activities together. There’s a huge amount of satisfaction and emotions watching the kids do that.”
Leah and her brother Zachary Nelson have learned everything from sewing and gardening to hunting, fishing, and smoking salmon from their grandparents. Carrying down tradition is important to the family, and Michael and Michelle intend to make sure that their children remember it.
Michael’s grandfather, Charles Nelson Sr., was one of the original board members of Sealaska and worked to keep Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures alive in a time of segregation. The scholarship programs that Sealaska offers through Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) helped put Michael and his brother through college. Michael wants to pass down his gratitude for the Institute and the opportunities they have offered Native youth to his children.
“It’s always been an important part of our lives through three generations and now you have a fourth generation with our kids to make sure they have that appreciation of what my father and grandfather went through to help make life easier for us,” he said.
Family is sewn into the button blanket. There are six heart-shaped buttons sewn into the killer whale’s body, representing six members of the Nelson family that have been lost to heart disease. The part of the blanket that represents Leah herself is a design that
Michael came up with on his own: the tail of the killer whale is an otter design modified to look like a cat’s face. Last year Leah took in two kittens from the Gastineau Humane Society and wanted to incorporate her love of them into the blanket.
Michael and Michelle are looking forward to seeing their daughter perform with the Thunderbirds dance group. Michael said, “The excitement and the emotions are probably going to be at an all-time high for us this Celebration.”
Leah will be dancing in her grandfather’s honor in a button blanket that will help her remember her grandmother’s love and determination. She said, “For me, I kind of think of it as …bringing something we worked on together as a family to Celebration for a lot of people to see.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct that Charles Nelson Sr. was one of the original board members of Sealaska, not SHI, and that Sealaska offers scholarships through SHI.
• Jack Scholz is a freelance writer living in Juneau.