Women of
             Fur Trade
Decorative Robes             

   Decorated Robes of the Plains Indian




   The Indians of the North American plains were a 
   nomadic people, following the buffalo herds of the
   west. This lifestyle required artistic expression to be
   utilitarian in nature.  One of the hallmarks of Native
   American culture was the decorated robe.  Decorated
   robes were generally made of bison hides with the hair
   on for winter use, and deer or elk hides for summer

   Designs used abstract and symbolic expression to
   convey the social, religious and philosophical views of
   the artist and wearer.  A common belief was that the
   wearer of the robe would receive a symbolic transfer
   of he animals powers.(6) 

   Decorated robes are found in a great many native
   populations of North America.  The focus of this
   paper is the robes of the native populations that
   inhabited the Great Plains of North America. 



   Coronado provided the earliest known record of
   painted hides in August of 1540.  In 1738, La
   Verendrye noted that the Mandan traded painted
   buffalo hides to the Assiniboine.  Anthony Hendry
   wrote of the Blackfeet painting their robes with red
   paint in 1755.(2)  All of these citations were in general
   terms, without addressing any specifics of the
   decoration.  The earliest detailed information came
   from Lewis and Clarks Mandan robe that represented
   a battle from 1797(2). 

    Due to the problem of deterioration of the materials
   used in decorated robes, prehistoric evidence of
   painted robes does not exist today.  The oldest known
   plains painted buffalo robe in existence is a Mandan
   exploit robe painted in approximately 1800.(2,9) 
   Older robes of the Illinois Indians, currently in French
   collections, date back to the mid and late 1700s.(3)


    Oldest Plains Robe thought to be in existence Mandan Robe painted in 1800.
Peabody Museum of Harvard University

   Painted hides were also used as objects of exchange
   between nations and could have changed hands often.
   (3)  As a trade item, painted hides were worth two
   unpainted hides.  Due to the exchange of ideas,
   traditions, and goods, it is frequently impossible to
   tell the exact origination of any hide(3); however,
   generalizations can be made based on the nature of
   the decoration



   Both men and women painted hides.  The design was
   typically based on the painter, and their role in the
   society of the tribe.  Men were responsible for
   protecting and providing food for the tribe and they
   painted life figures in two dimensions without
   backgrounds.  Pictorial imagery expressed daily life,
   aspects of vision quests, and heroic deeds.  Women,
   in general, painted balanced, geometrical designs.
   (1,2,3,9).  These geometric patterns are considered to
   have symbolic meaning. (9)


   Traditionally, the robe was always worn with the head
   of the robe to the wearers right.  Sometimes, the robe
   was worn so that the R shoulder and arm were free for
   use and the L arm was covered and held the robe in
   place. (6)



   Pigments for painting the robes were primarily
   obtained from earth materials, but have also been
   obtained from plant and animal products.  Brown, red,
   and yellow came from clays, black from earth or
   charcoal.  A yellow ocherous substance, when ground,
   made yellow, but if baked carefully, could also make
   a vermilion color.(2,3)

Painting Supplies


   There is some debate over the use of blue prior, to the
   advent of white traders, but there is some evidence of
   blue earth pigment, as well as duck guano, being used
   by the Blackfeet.(1,3) Alexander Henry, a trader from
   1760-1776, listed 10 different pigments used by the
   Piegan Blackfeet in the early 1800s.  These colors
   include; dark red, brownish red, deep yellow, light
   yellow, dark blue, light sky blue, lead color, green,
   white, and charcoal.(5)   The Native artists tended to
   prefer the primary colors in their selection for painting
   robes.  Red was the most common color used in robe
   decor.  Yellow and blue were the next more common
   colors used, followed by green, then brown, then
   black.  Orange and purple were seldom used.(1)


   The dried pigments were mixed into a liquid or semi-
   liquid medium. Animal fat was used to make "oil
   paints"(5), and glue made from boiled beaver tail or
   hides was used as a mordant.  Glue was also used as a 
   sealer if the pigments were simply mixed with water. 
   Cactus juice was also used as a binder or sealer.(2,3,5)


   Specific pigments could be obtained by the various
   plants: Red was obtained from red osier dogwood,
   alder bark, buffalo berries, squaw currants, viburnum
   drupes, wild plum fruits, or bloodroot.  Blackfeet
   used the buds of the pussy willow harvested in
   springtime for red as well.


   Yellow came from wolf moss, sumac pith or roots,
   goldthread roots, certain lichens, early cottonwood
   buds, sunflower or coneflower petals, buffalo berries,
   or roots of black willow.  Black pigment came from
   black walnuts or walnut roots, butternuts, hazel
   burs, hickory nuts, maple leaves and bark, or from
   wild grapes.  Green was obtained from pond scum or
   grasses.  Dark brown came from the edges of peat
   bogs or from the bottom of stagnant ponds (probably
   brown limonite.)   Blue was rare before trade blankets
   were introduced.  Larkspur could possibly have been
   used as well to make a blue.   Violet could have been
   obtained from rotten maple wood or blueberries. 
   Light orange was obtained from dodder vines. (5)


   Brushes were made from bone, horn, or frayed sticks,
   usually of cottonwood or willow.  The bones most
   commonly used were the porous edge of the buffalo
   shoulder blade or the end of a buffalo hipbone.  A
   separate brush was used for each color.(2,3,5)


   Representative Paintings

    The men of the tribe painted these robes, and they were
   commonly seen in the central and northern plains, and
   less often in the southern plains.  These robes were
   painted in flat, two-dimensional figures with no
   background.  Figures were painted with the head and
   legs in profile, even if the body was turned to the
   front.  The head of the hide animal was worn to the
   wearers left with painted figures right side up.  Figures
   were generally scattered over the robes with no
   attempt to arrange figures on the hide.(1)


   One type of the representative painting was the winter
   count robe.  These robes were painted by the medicine
   men of the tribe to record important or unusual
   happenings in the life and times of a tribe.  Winter 
   Count robes generally started in the center of the hide
   and radiated out in a clockwise spiral.(3,7)  This type
   of robe has been collected from the Sioux and Kiowa
   exclusively in which there is a monthly history of the



Photograph taken in 1923 of Winter Count Robe
being painted by Sioux Medicine Man (3)


   Personal records or exploit robes were typically
   painted by men and worn by men. (1,8) There is one
   notation by John Hunter in writings published in 1823
   in which a Kansas woman was permitted to wear an
   exploit robe.(4,7)  A final type of representative
   painting includes imaginative records or vision robes.
   These are generally indistinguishable from the real
   event/exploit robes.  Exploit robes represented the
   pictographic record of a mans personal war deeds.
   The figures were stylized and painted in battle scenes
   with many warriors, horses, and other animals. (7)


   Buffalo hunts were also depicted on robes.  Since
   touching an enemy with a coup stick was considered
   braver than killing an enemy, that, along with the
   stealing of horses, was a favorite subject of these



Representative painting with quilled strip


   Humans and horses are the most common figures
   represented in hide paintings.  Buffalo are found on
   only about seven percent of paintings, with bear and
   deer even less often.  Dogs, although a common part
   of daily life, were not portrayed on any hides found.(2)


Geometric Paintings


   As with other painted art of the plains Indians, the
   women painted geometric designs, most falling into
   five basic patterns; the box and border, the hourglass
   and border, the bilaterally symmetrical, the horizontal
   stripes, and the feathered circle. Given trade and
   exchange among various tribes of the plains, no
   particular design is attributed to a specific tribe, but
   are shared between two or more tribes within a
   geographical area.(8)




     2,5)5 Basic Pattern designs for Geometrically Painted Robes: A. Box
    and Border, B. Hourglass and Border, C. Feathered Circle, D.
    Horizontal Stripes, and E. Bilaterally Symmetrical



   Females painted and wore the box and border as well
   as the hourglass and border designs. (8,9).  The box
   and border design was limited to the Dakota Sioux
   and their geographic neighbors.  The hourglass and
   border design is seen in the largest distribution
   amongst tribes, but was seen more often amongst
   the southern plains tribes. 


   The border was painted 6 or more inches from the
   edge of the robe.  These borders may be a simple and
   linear or elaborate with additional horizontal lines
   running parallel to horizontal
border. (9)



                                    Sioux Box and Border
                     Courtesy of Field Museum of Natural History 



Pueblo Hourglass
Courtesy of U.S. National Museum                           


   The Teton or Western Sioux, the Arapahoes and the
   Cheyenne women liked the bilaterally symmetrical
   designs.  This design looks like two facing Es with
   four legs.  The patterns generally consist of narrow
   lines, small triangles, and dots.  The pattern is also
   seen in the Arapaho tribes as well.(8)


   The horizontal stripes design features narrow bands. 
   Most hides would have between 5 and 11 stripes.  
   The stripes can consist of simple lines of color, to
   elaborately decorated narrow bands.  This design
   pattern was seen predominantly in the Blackfeet and
   Sarsi tribes and was worn by both men and women. 
   Blackfeet sometimes called this pattern a "marked
   robe". (1,8). 


   According to Mandelbaum, the Canadian Cree used
   a variation of the horizontal stripe design.  Broken
   into two columns, the stripes consisted of either
   repetitive arrows or thin hourglass shape  with serrated
   ends. (6). 


                               Horizontal Stripe on Cow Hide
                              American Museum of Natural History

                               Sioux Bilaterally Symmetrical 
                                   US National Museum


   Women also painted feathered circles or black bonnet
   on robes that were worn by the men.(8)  Bodmer
   painted a woman wearing a feathered circle in his
   painting of the Minnetaree Tribe.  The women of the
   Buffalo Society were featured performing the Scalp
   Dance.(10)  The feathered circle was only seen in the
   Siouan tribes and their neighbors.(2) 


   There are a few robes painted with geometric patterns
   that do not fit into any design standard from various
   tribes including the Blackfeet, Arapaho, Osage, and
   Taos.  Records appear to indicate that they were
   either decorated to be equipment in games or as
   medicine robes, which required unique decoration. 
   These robes were rare.(2)


   There are several hides, which were originally painted
   in geometric pattern where one can also find realistic
   motifs that have been added later.  These include a
   Sioux made feather star with figures.  Another is an
   Apache hourglass form combined with life forms.


   There is no record of geometrically painted robes
   from the Assiniboine, Bannock, Gro Ventre, Plains
   Ojibwe, Omaha, Oto, Kansas, or Iowa Indian tribes.

   Although the designs are geometric, every aspect of
   color and design are full of meaning that the painter
   used to honor or represent different aspects of their
   world view, mythology and culture.  Interpretation of
   a Box and border design was obtained at the time of
   collection in which every line, color and shape had
   representational meaning for the painter.  Clark
   Wissler who studied native design and symbolism in
   early 1900s, reported that no pattern was used just as
   a decoration, but were full of symbolic or sacred value


   An example of this symbolic design is the use of the
   border to represent the buffalo or symbolize "a river
   on which floats pemmican"  which is a reference to an
   Arapaho legend. (9).   The hourglass also can represent
   the buffalo.(2)   An interview of older Indians of the
   Blackfeet stated that the horizontal stripes had no
   symbolic meaning, but was simply a design that
   appealed to the Blackfeet.(1)



   Quillwork was done with either porcupine or bird
   quills.  Due to scarcity of porcupine quills, the
   Cheyenne would occasionally substitute various
   grasses for quills.(8)  Maidenhair fern was used for
   black. The Kiowa had little to no quillwork due to lack
   of porcupines.  For the Cheyenne, quilling of robes
   was a sacred occupation done only by select women
   of the quillers societies.  They felt that quillwork
   encompassed great spiritual and symbolic actions
   and meaning.(8)


        From Karl Bodmer documentation indicated that these are      
       Minnetaree women of the white buffalo society performing scalp
      dance dressed as warriors. (10)



   Many tribes tanned buffalo hides by cutting them in
   half down the middle and then sewing them back
   together when completed.  A single quilled strip was
   frequently used to cover this seam.  The Cheyenne
   would add a medallion or rosettes of quillwork along
   the strip.(8) The Assiniboine would place a large
   rosette on the front and back ends of the strip on the
   robe.  The Arikara would place the rosette at the end
   of the strip. The Blackfeet would also simply paint the
   seam red.(1)

   Another design frequently seen were robes with a
   multitude of horizontal single rows of quillwork across
   the length of the robe.  Bits of feathers or wool would
   also be seen added along these lines for embellishment.



                     Mehkskehme-Sukahs, Piegan Blackfeet                   
  Bodmer 1833 (10)




   The Indians of the North American plains were a
   creative and artistic people whose utilitarian art on
   decorated robes demonstrates and preserves their



    1.  Ewers, J.C.; Blackfeet Crafts.  1986 R. Schneider, Stevens
    Point, WI; Pg. 14-22.

    2.  Ewers, J.C.; Plains Indian Painting.  1979. Stanford University
    Press, Ca.

    3.  Horse Capture, G.; Vitart, A.; Wldberg, M. and West, W.R.; 
    Robes of Splendor: Native North American Painted Buffalo Hides. 
    1993. The New Press, NY, NY.

    4.  Hunter, John D. Manners and Customs of Several Indian Tribes
    1823, Philadelphia  Pg.345.

    5.  Koch, R.; Dress Clothing of the Pains Indians.  1977. University
    of Oklahoma Press, Norman. Pg. 23-34, 105-132, 171-176.

    6.   Mandelbaum, David.; The Plains Cree; An Ethnographic,   
    Historical, and Comparative Study.  1979.  Canadian Plains
    Research Center, University of Regina. 

    7.  Nalor, M.; Authentic Indian Designs.  1975.  Dover Publications,
    Mineola, NY; pg. 51-64.

    8.  Paterek, J.; Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume.   1994. 
    W.W. Norton & Co.; NY.  Pg. 83-142, 209-239.

    9.  Taylor, Colin F.  The Plains Indians.  1994.  Barnes and Nobles
    Books; NY. Pg. 119-126.

   10.  Thomas, D. & Ronnefeldt, K. People of the First Man; Life among
    the Plains Indians in Their Final Days of Glory.  1982. Promotary
    Press, NY. Pg. 47,137, 179, 215, 222 & 225.




    I relied heavy on J. Ewers book entitled Plains Indian
   Painting.  It is an excellently researched and well-
   referenced book.  I highly recommend it to anyone looking
   to expand his or her personal collection.



Sandra L Roberts

August 2006

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