The Story Behind the Painted Buffalo Robes

August 22, 2012

Painted Buffalo Robe

One hundred years ago this year (when the Penn Museum was just celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding) a letter arrived on the desk of then Director, George Byron Gordon.  The post was from James H. McGlaughlin, who ran a trading post on Standing Rock Reservation, in North Dakota.  In it, McGlaughlin replied to a query from Gordon about five painted buffalo robes that the Museum had purchased from him the year before (1911).  Gordon had asked: “I wish particularly to know at what time they were made and by whom.”  McGlaughlin responded:  “…the robe with the rising sun on it, was painted by Mrs. Charging Thunder in 1882…the other two were painted by Mrs. Spotted Horn Bull and Mrs. Eagleman…”

When I first ran across this letter in the Museum Archives a few years ago (interestingly, while looking for something else), I was stunned.  Here was information naming the artists of pieces which were in the collections of the American Section.  This was information which had never been entered into the catalogue and did not appear on the registrar’s cards.

US Indian Census Rolls18851940 Standing Rock Sioux Iand

In an attempt to identify who Mrs. Charging Thunder, Mrs. Eagleman, and Mrs. Spotted Horn Bull were, I began to comb through the census records for Standing Rock Reservation.  Beginning in 1885, and yearly thereafter until 1940, the census was conducted by the agent in charge of the reservation.  In 1885 Mrs. Charging Thunder appears as number 235 on the rolls of the Sihasapa (Blackfeet) Lakota.  Her name in Lakota is Winyan Hanska (Tall Woman).  At the time of this census she was 41 years old which means that she would have been 38 when she painted the robe and at the height of her artistic and creative powers.

The Buffalo Robe painted by Tall Woman/Charging Thunder  is most likely NA3985, a winter robe with the design called “feathered circle” or “war bonnet.”  This is a design reserved for robes that were worn by men.  The hide is that of a buffalo cow which was killed during the autumn when buffalo begin to grow their winter coats.   After brain-tanning the hide, Tall Woman painted the design using vermillion (from China) and blue, green, and yellow pigments obtained through the trading post.  The robe would have been traditionally worn with the fur side in for warmth.   There is evidence to suggest, however, that this robe (as well as the other four obtained from McGlaughlin) were not painted for Native use but rather for sale at the trading post.  This in no way negates the consummate artistry displayed in its painting.

In sum, this is just one example of the depth and richness of the stories contained in the Museum’s American  Collections, which never cease to amaze and inspire me as Keeper of these materials.