DescriptionSioux Painted Buffalo Robe (Northern Teton, probably Hunkpapa or Blackfeet Sioux (Siha Sapa))
Height 90 in. Length 109 in.
Across the Great Plains and throughout much of North America hide robes were the typical outer garment. They were worn with the thick animal hair lying against the skin, providing protection from the cold. Hides with the hair removed were worn in the warmer seasons. The Plains Indians wore their robes with the head of the animal to the wearer's left and the longer dimension wrapped around the body. Most robes, like the present example, retain the stake holes through which pegs were driven during the dressing process. The finely-grained skin of the tanned hide made a more than suitable canvas for artistic expression. A number of conventionalized designs became popular within the Plains Indian cultural milieu. Examples and their descriptive terms include box and border robes, border and hourglass robes, feathered circle robes, etc. However, the most dramatic painted robes are those depicting the war exploits of the owner. Recognition and status within the tribe were best achieved through prowess in battle. The pictographic robe was a reminder to all of the wearer's success on the war trail.
The earliest documented example of a painted pictorial robe is one collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from the Mandan and shipped to President Thomas Jefferson. William Clark's journal entry for April 3, 1805 states: "we are all ingaged packing up Sundery articles to be sent to the President of the U.S." The itemized list for "Box No. 2" includes "1 robe representing a battle between the Sioux and Ricara's, Minetarras and Mandans." This famous robe is in the collections of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The present example falls squarely within the same tradition as the Lewis and Clark robe. The painting is done with mineral and trade pigments, fixed in a binder of animal skin glue, on brain tanned buffalo hide. There is minor abrasion to the painted surface, due to age and wear, but the images are intact, without restoration, and the colors are quite vibrant. There is minor discoloration due to long display in a museum frame.
There are a number of markers on this robe which identify it as Sioux. This robe has previously been published and a Cheyenne attribution assigned. (See: American Indian Art Magazine, Volume 27, Number 1, Winter 2001, inside front cover.) It is useful to compare some of the relevant details surrounding Cheyenne and Sioux pictographic art. The former identification was largely made on the basis of the Dog Soldier figure which appears in the second tier from the bottom, second figure from the left. However, other tribes allied with the Cheyenne - the Arapaho and Sioux - also had warrior societies with officers who wore headdresses and sashes similar to those of the Cheyenne Dog Soldier Society. Among the Sioux, the relevant association was the Miwatani Society. (See: Amos Bad Heart Bull. A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967, pp. 106-107.) A characteristic feature of Cheyenne warfare depictions is that many individuals and their horses were represented with extensive designs of protective body painting. Aside from the Miwatani Society figure, only minimal face painting appears among the other figures, strongly indicating that the tribal identity of the artist cannot be Cheyenne. The rider in the top tier, second from the right, wears a horned headdress with feathered trailer typical of the Sioux Cante T'inza (Strong Heart) Society. (See: Bad Heart Bull, p.104.) The rider in the top tier, far right, carries an otter fur wrapped crooked lance typical of the Sioux Ihoka (Badger) Society. (See: Bad Heart Bull, p.109.) Cloth "war capes" of the type worn by two figures on this robe are also typical of the Sioux, but not the Cheyenne.
It is important to realize that although the mass of figures on this robe gives the impression of a single, large melee, actually many separate events are depicted which all probably occurred within a single season. Note, for example, that the Miwatani Society warrior wears only a breechcloth - indicative of summer activity; while the dismounted figure to the left wears a white-wool blanket capote, a garment for cold weather. Also, in the second tier from the bottom, below the rider with red cape, two pipes are represented, in conjunction with horse tracks. These are not to be understood as "lying on the ground", where they would be trampled by the charging horses. Instead, they symbolize two occasions when the owner of this robe "carried the Pipe", or acted as leader of separate horse raids. On one occasion, six horses were captured; on the second occasion, only two were obtained.
A combination of features represented on this robe suggests that the events depicted occurred during the fighting between the Northern Tetons, and the Cole-Walker expedition (Colonel Nelson Cole and Colonel Samuel Walker) along the Powder River, Montana during the summer and autumn of 1865. The U.S. military force consisted of both infantry and cavalry, with artillery support units. No recorded battle with U.S. troops during the 1870s involved artillery. Two U.S. infantrymen and a civilian teamster are depicted being overcome in the top tier of figures. Two bearded civilians, perhaps scouts, are being attacked near the tail of the robe. Many of the captured horses have clearly-represented McClellan saddles, used by the U.S. Cavalry. The group at lower center even have the canteens represented behind the saddles.
Two mules drawing an artillery caisson are shown in the bottom tier, being captured at far left. This probably represents events that occurred on September 1, 1865: "...Missouri River Sioux - Minniconjous, Sans Arcs, Hunkpapas and Blackfeet Sioux ... had discovered the trail of the columns on the Little Missouri and, three-hundred strong, they had followed the trail to the powder where, on the morning of the first, they went down into the deep valley, surprised the troops and stampeded part of the cavalry herd ... Little fights were fought on both sides of the river ... The troops recaptured some of the stolen horses, but the Sioux succeeded in getting away with most of them, and at one point they set a trap for (the detachment led by Captain E.S. Rowland of the Second Missouri Light Artillery. He was saved by the arrival of Cole's column, but all of his men were lost)". (See: George E. Hyde and Savoie Lottinville (ed.). Life of George Bent, Written From His Letters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, p.235 and footnote 14, same page.)
Much of the draftsmanship on this robe is extraordinarily fine. The two teams of mules drawing the caisson are represented with such precision they are readily distinguished from the horses shown elsewhere.
The encounters between Sioux and Cheyenne and the troops of Cole and Walker are well described in the literature. It can be mentioned that Sitting Bull, age 34 during the fall of 1865, participated in a subsequent attack on September 8, 1865. Some four -hundred Sioux attacked Walker's troops that day but did not try to hold the field after Cole came forward with his troops to assist. Sitting Bull was armed only with bow and arrows and a single shot muzzle loader and during this encounter he failed to count coup. The troops staggered into Camp Connor (located at the junction of the Bozeman Trail and Powder River) on September 20, 1865 having lost most of their horses and mule teams to starvation and exposure - the result of severe weather and cold.
Pitt Rivers Collection (Mrs. Stella Pitt-Rivers), Oxford University, England. Merton Simpson, Paris and New York. George Terasaki, New York. Trotta-Bono, Shrub Oak, New York.
1 - Ewers, John C. Plains Indian Painting. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1939, pp. 8 -13. 2 - Moulton, Gary E. (ed.). The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Volume 3. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, pp.329-330. 3 - Bad Heart Bull, Amos. A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967, pp. 104, 106, 107, 109. 4 - Hyde, George E. and Lottinville, Savoie (ed.). Life of George Bent, Written From His Letters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, p.235 and footnote 14, same page. 5 - Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957, pp. 76-82. 6 - Berthrong, Donald J. The Southern Cheyennes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963, pp. 245 - 256.
--Thanks to Mike Cowdrey, San Luis Obispo, California, for his great assistance with this essay.
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