Cree Coat

April 30, 2015

Quillwork-Embellished “Cree” Coat

Object Analysis for Anthropology of Museums
by Pauline Saribas

This delicately adorned fringed Cree coat (item #NA3635) was procured from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1915 by George Byron Gordon, who was then the Director of the Penn Museum. Sewn out of three pieces of elk hide, it is embroidered with porcupine quills in beautiful geometric motifs, and trimmed with a warm, golden-brown fur that looks to be muskrat. The texture of the hide (soft and pliable, with a slight smoky odor) suggests it was prepared through brain-tanning and smoking. The coat displays European influence in the tailoring, the scalloped edges of the bottom hem (cut with special pinking shears), and the use of velvet and cotton to make the pockets. Yet the elk hide, fringing and trimming with fur, and ornamentation with quillwork designs, are essentially Indigenous.

Quillwork-embellished leather coat collected by George Byron Gordon. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum.. Museum Object  Number: NA3635.
Quillwork-embellished leather coat collected by George Byron Gordon. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: NA3635.

The porcupine quillwork that makes this coat beautiful is common among the Native peoples of the Northeastern, Northern Plains, and Subarctic regions, including the Cree. Porcupine quills are stiff, pointed, modified hairs, up to three inches in length, that were dyed and flattened. Native Americans and First Nations people had ingenious ways to color and use porcupine quills for decoration, stitching them through bark or hide, or wrapping them around a piece of fringe.[1]

The shoulders, front placket, and sleeves of this coat are decorated in this way. The Cree historically attributed power and meaning to certain kinds of adornment; perhaps the quillwork has protective as well as decorative effect.[2] The dyes used for the quillwork designs could be a starting point for determining the age of the coat. Before the 1850s and the invention of aniline dyes, plant-based dyes were used for coloring.[3] Perhaps the dyes could be analyzed to see if they were aniline or plant based? The purple color in the neckband is particularly vivid, and the range of colors is similar to other quilled objects from the subarctic found in other North American ethnographic museums.[4]

Detail showing intensity of of purple and red dyes on quillwork. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.
Detail showing intensity of of purple and red dyes on quillwork. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

There is little information about how this coat was obtained by the Museum, except to record that it was collected from the Hudson’s Bay Company. No clues appear to have survived in Gordon’s correspondence, photos, or bills of sale, and there are no publications describing this coat.

In searching for comparable objects, I found some Cree coats in other museums, and learned that fringed leather coats—cut to European patterns and embellished with designs made from paint, porcupine quills, and/or beads—became common on the Canadian frontier during the 18th and 19th centuries. The style began when settlers gave military-style frock coats to tribal leaders as a way to reinforce trade and convey status. Some Native people made their own versions of these tailored coats out of various hides. A description of a Cree frock coat from 1832 in a Christie’s auction catalogue notes that these coats were common among the Ojibway, Cree, and Red River Métis who demonstrated:

“…artistic ability, technical accomplishments, and keen ingenuity in their ability to replicate things alien to their respective cultures. Trade goods, especially ready-made garments, were expensive items during the era, yet they exerted strong appeal. Resourceful Indian artists created remarkable facsimiles of prized items such as frockcoats, giving them a decided Indian twist.”[5]

Yet, this is not a frock coat. It is cut in a squarish jacket style, suggesting that it may date to a later period, perhaps the late 19th century.

There is a Cree coat in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), identified as misko takiy (hide coat). The quillwork motifs are geometric, but the coat is also painted, and it is made from moose hide, not elk hide. Sherry Farrell Racette notes that it is cut along the traditional lines from a single large moose hide: “the coat wraps around a man’s body as it once wrapped around the animal.” There is a coat in the NMAI collection labeled “Cree Métis,” but the quillwork motifs are curvilinear and it is patterned on a Euro-American style frock coat. A second square-cut leather coat can be found in the Penn Museum collections—identified as Alaskan Tlingit, item # NA9478)—but the decoration is very different from this “Cree” coat.

When I could not find an example of a Cree coat similar to this one, I wondered, based on the extent of decoration, if it was Métis, a blend of European and Native culture? The use of velvet on the pockets appeared to date it to the 19th century, and I found other Métis coats with velvet and quillwork from that era, but none of these resembled the one at Penn. Métis motifs for quillwork tended to be overwhelmingly curvilinear and floral, rather than geometric.[6]

Pauline Saribas and other Museum Anthropology students in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.
Pauline Saribas and other Museum Anthropology students in the Penn Museum’s Collections Study Room. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

It is hard to know what this particular coat meant to its Native maker and wearer. There is only slight evidence of wear on the inside and sleeve ends, suggesting it was rarely worn. Perhaps it was made specifically for a collector? Since the quillwork displays such careful symmetry, perhaps it was regalia to be worn on a special occasion? Although this coat was made to fit a man’s frame, the delicacy of the quillwork leads me to suggest that this finely embellished coat was decorated by a woman. Perhaps it is in the category of museum objects that are:

“…encoded with knowledge, although they are sometimes impenetrable and difficult to understand. Most often sleeping on a shelf in a museum storage room, completely decontextualized from their cultures of origin, they are the raw materials of women’s history.[7]

This coat has a story to tell, and I continue to wonder at its meaning.


[1] Orchard, William C. 1916. The Technique of Porcupine-Quill Decoration among the North American Indians. The Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation.

[2] Miranda, Caroline A. June 18, 2014. “Object Lesson: Rare Cree Coat a Window into America’s Complex History,” Los Angeles Times.

[3] Feest, Christian F. 1992. Native Arts of North America. London: Thames and Hudson.

[4] Cole, Christina, and Susan Heald 2010. “The History and Analysis of Pre-Aniline Native American Quillwork Dyes.” Presented at “Textiles and Settlement: From Plains Space to Cyber Space,” Textile Society of America 12th Biennial Symposium, Lincoln, Nebraska, October 6-9, 2010.

[5] A handsome example of a Cree leather coat cut in a frock style was auctioned at Christie’s in 2003.

[6] For a gallery of clothing examples and more information, see Métis Textiles, a website gallery at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, in Eugene, Oregon.

[7] Farrell Racette, Sherry 2009. “Looking for Stories and Unbroken Threads: Museum Artifacts as Woman’s History and Cultural Legacy,” in Gail G. Valaskakis, Madeline D. Stout, and Eric Guimond 2009. Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community and Culture. University of Manitoba Press, p. 287.