A Buffalo Robe Biography

By: Henry Usher Hall

Originally Published in 1926

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The museum has lately acquired a painted buffalo robe of that interesting class which provides pictorial records of the warlike activities of the tribes of the upper Missouri valley at a time when the prairies were still open to their war parties and bands of buffalo hunters. Considering the age of this record of a vanished time and a vanishing people, the state of preservation in which it has reached us is remarkable enough. One of the painted episodes with which the surface is covered has been partially obliterated by a rent which has removed a portion of it; that part of the hide which has been torn away in the region of the head of the buffalo which provided the skin probably contained no painted figures.

A robe made out of buffalo hide, laid out to show a series of figures on horseback painted onto the robe
A Painted Buffalo Robe of the Plains Indians
Museum Object Number: NA10721
Image Numbers: 12870-12877

Robes decorated with realistic drawings of this kind fall into three chief classes: time counts or calendars in which remarkable events of successive seasons, winter or summer, were represented in a series of drawings by which the succession of these periods was marked for the remembrance of posterity in a particular tribe or group ; personal records, or biographies, commonly autobiographies, since it was usually his own exploits that a warrior set down in the graphic texts of which the robe here figured is a fine example; and the imaginative records of visions.

The time count was by its nature the chronicle, though of course only a partial one, of a group of people. That this robe does not belong to that class is evident from the appearance in a majority, if not certainly in all, of the incidents pictured upon it, of the same principal figure, who is shown as the victor in most or all of the series of combats represented. Again, the record has a character too extensive and too circumstantially detailed to permit its being regarded as the transcript of a vision. It is thus evidently of the nature of a biography.

The painting of such records on robes, scalp shirts, and tipis was undoubtedly associated with a custom according to which warriors recited before the council an account of the deeds in battle or raid which would entitle them to special consideration or standing among their fellows. If a man had taken part, as in the case before us, in more than twenty battles or raids, he might well require some aid to memory in recounting his exploits. When his record was challenged and he made oath to its authenticity, he could weight the authority of his pledge by pointing to the graphic representation on his robe or shirt of the incident in question. It is not only in sophisticated societies that the written or pictured word remains in the mind as in itself a proof of the credibility of artist or writer.

A sketch of two figures on horseback fighting
Horsemen with shields from Group 1.

Among most Plains tribes, the buffalo robe was the only covering in ordinary use for the upper part of the body, so far as the men were concerned. The scalp shirt, or honour shirt, with its fringe of locks from the scalps taken in war, was, at any rate in early times, worn only on certain ceremonial occasions. The buffalo robe not only served to keep the body warm in winter, but had also a number of ceremonial or ritual uses. In an Arikara medicine ceremony, the leader of the office stood on a buffalo robe to pray. Among the Teton Dakota, it was worn ceremonially at marriages; a robe painted red formed one of the offerings at the ceremony of the Vision Cry; the faster in this ceremony of consecration donned such a robe after his sojourn in the sweating tent; it was a part of the prescribed costume at the sun dance. Similar use was made of buffalo robes among other tribes who were neighbours of the Dakota: at the Mandan ceremony known as okipe, buffalo robes were hung from slits cut in the flesh of the fasters who were suspended from the roof of the lodge by means of skewers run through other slits in the upper part of the back. The dead were laid out upon or buried in their buffalo robes among the Arikara, Hidatsa, Blackfoot, and Teton Dakota. The robes were worn at ritual dances to simulate the appearance of the animal from which they were derived.1

Robes from which, like the one before us, the hair has been removed are said to have been principally for summer wear. Robes on which the hair had been retained were worn with the hairy side in in cold weather. On an occasion when the display of the decoration, realistic, as in the present instance, mainly, or, as in the case of the majority of robes, conventionalized and symbolic or merely ornamental, was the prime object for the wearing of the robe the contact of the heavy hair with the skin of the wearer would have to be endured in hot weather, failing the possession of a decorated hairless robe. On account of the lighter and softer nature of the skin, robes were usually made from the hide of the buffalo cow.2

A sketch of a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and holding a long staff or spear
Horsemen with Shield from Group 3.

All the evidence derivable from the appearance of this robe, which is all the evidence we have, points to a more than merely respectable age. It was evidently carefully preserved during a large part of its existence before it came into the possession of the MUSEUM. This may be seen from the clearness with which most of the pictures still show their details and colour. Age has transformed the inner surface of the hide, on which the pictures are painted, so that in several places it exhibits under a fairly strong glass a texture which can best be described as woolly. It was only after it had reached the condition of fragility this implies that the dilapidations ensued which can be clearly seen in a few places, and which are evidently due to somewhat recent carelessness. The costumes worn by a few of the painted figures are of some assistance in attempting to ascertain the age of the robe, though they do not warrant the assigning of a definite date. The long skirted uniform coats of several of the mounted figures, with high straight collar and without lapels, with pocket flaps placed low down in the almost flowing skirts, have a decided eighteenth century complexion. On the other hand, coats presented or traded to Indian chiefs would naturally long continue to follow a fashion rather early established for such things; yet these coats have a more antiquated appearance than the somewhat similar garment represented on a painted robe figured in the Atlas to Maximilian of Wied’s Travels into the Interior of North America, the drawings for which were made during the years 1832-1834. The cut of the coat worn by the mounted warrior in the middle of the second row above the quillwork stripe is of a more modern fashion, though its outlines are not clearly enough defined to allow of the drawing of any exact inference as to its date; but it may be recalled that tail coats of a cut resembling the now obsolescent frock coat with a tendency towards the swallowtail effect of the modern dress coat were worn with loose ” pantalons à l’anglaise ” at the beginning of the last century, a date which may not be much, if at all, too early to assign to this buffalo robe. The quillwork stripe was, with its foundation of hide, stitched with sinew on to the robe after the completion of the painted decoration of the latter. This is evident from the covering up at several points of small portions of the pictures by the applied decoration. The noticeably lighter shade of the part of the surface which is thus covered indicates that the robe was not old when the stripe was applied. But the quillwork itself is old, and we learn from Maximilian that the application to a buffalo robe of a quillwork stripe was already becoming oldfashioned at the beginning of the third decade of the last century.3

This decoration is applied to a strip of buffalo hide which has been cut to conform to the quillwork stripe and stitched to the robe with stout thread made of buffalo sinew. The pattern is formed in quills spliced together at their ends and carried in bands of close flat spirals over two parallel lines of sinew thread which are attached to the hide by what Orchard4 calls a spot stitch. This means that the thread is passed at intervals into the thickness of the hide, not through it but parallel to the surface, to reappear at an interval considerably shorter than the portion left free. It is very tightly stretched and has held the quills securely in position; the gaps which have made their appearance here and there are not due to the parting of the sinew threads but to the breaking away, through rough usage, of the quills themselves. Each spiral band is separate and distinct; they are. arranged in concentric circles for the discs and in parallel rows for the rest of the decoration, except on the flaps which represent the ears of the buffalo and which are covered with concentric half-ellipses carried out in the same manner. The small rosettes in the centre of the discs, both of the large ones on the longitudinal strips and of the smaller ones representing the eyes of the beast, are constructed of a sort of twoway spiral, in which each turn overlaps the next. The small central edge is strung on a thread which is fastened to the hide at one point only, being free in the rest of the small circumference.

A sketch of a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and holding a shield, the horse is rearing on its hind legs
From Group 4.

Besides the quillwork stripe down the middle of the robe, this decoration, as we have seen, is applied to the ears of the buffalo, while two small discs of concentric circles represent its eyes. Conformably with the importance of this beast in the daily life of the Plains Indians, with the consequent mimetic representation of the animal in their ceremonies, and with the ceremonial use of robes made from buffalo skins, the origin of the hide used for making the robe is thus emphasized and preserved.

The use of quills dyed in two different colours, red and blue, together with undyed quills gives the design. In the case of the disc, this consists chiefly of two red sectors of a circle, truncated towards the centre of the latter, with their apices opposed. From each side of these triangular figures project two short blue arcs, the one nearer to the centre of the disc shorter than the other; and from the point where the longer arc ceases, a still longer broken line which is made up of short blue bars whose vertical length is determined by the width of the next outer concentric band, the curve of which it occupies, connects the ends of the two longer of the four short blue arcs. The ground of the whole is in the natural white of the quills.

Except in the absence of a head, and in the two chequered curves at the sides, which appear to be supernumerary to the main design, this bears a suggestive resemblance to a somewhat conventionalized mode common to the tribes of the Plains area of representing the eagle, the raven, or the mythological thunderbird with a triangle for the body and another, with apex opposed to the first, for the outspread tail. The two triangles form an hourglass figure with two branches extending horizontally from the upper border of the broad upper portion, for the wings, and two shorter branches, parallel to those extending from the waist of the hourglass, for the legs.5 If the design on the disc we are considering is a further conventionalization of such a figure, representing a tutelary bird-spirit, the doubling of the parts representing wings and legs, or the balanced repetition of the upper half of the figure, as the case may be, would be a natural development. Devices regarded as magically protective appear on robes as well as on shields, cradles, tipis, etc.6

A sketch of a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and holding a shield, the horse is galloping
From Group 5.

The disc, in quillwork, or later in beadwork, with a considerable variety in the detail of the design, occurs with great frequency in Plains Indian decoration. Whether or not it has always a symbolic meaning is uncertain. It had undoubtedly in some cases, but most of these are probably now beyond the possibility of interpretation. A design which resembles that figured here in consisting of two similarly opposed triangles within concentric bands or rings, but in which the broad part of the lower triangle projects beyond the outer ring, appears on the instep of a Sioux moccasin figured by Wissler.7 It is said to represent the head and neck of a person. The discs appeared commonly on the flaps of cradles, were said by the Arapaho to correspond there to the same ornament which was equally common on tipi covers, and apparently represented, on the cradles, a charm which embodied and reenforced a prayer that the occupant of the cradle might live to have a tipi of his own.8 What is perhaps a related interpretation of the significance of the. disc makes it ” symbolic of embryonic life” among the Dakota.9

Quillwork discs appeared also on shield covers, where they might repeat the simple decoration of concentric rings of different colours which often formed the only adornment of the shield itself, as in groups 1 and 2 on our pictured robe.

This form of decoration was the work of women. The porcupines which provided the quills were obtained by the men. The realistic paintings on the robes and other objects which commonly bore that form of decorative record were executed by men.

Robes usually bore the disc repeated several times on a stripe, also of quillwork, as here. It appeared also, as we have seen, on moccasins, cradles, and tipis. The latter also bore painted scenes from the owner’s career, as did the scalp shirts, which, too, were frequently ornamented with the quillwork disc. In that case it appears sometimes singly in the middle of the breast, sometimes as a pair, over the breasts, sometimes on the shoulder. Women’s shirts bore them in the same positions. They also occur on a quillwork stripe running down the side of the legging. In one or other or all of these positions they were to be seen among most of the tribes of the Plains.

A sketch of a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and holding a shield, the horse is galloping
From Group 6.

The quillwork disc is thus not a mark by which we can distinguish the robe figured here as having belonged to a Dakota. But there are certain details of the painted figures which point to Dakota authorship of the record and ownership of the robe. These are, in the first place, the distinction made in a number of instances between the principal actor depicted and his antagonists in the painting of their faces, where these have their foreheads and he the lower part of the face painted red. The former mark is said by Mallery10 to have been employed by Dakota painters of these records as an indication that the wearers of the mark were members of the Crow tribe; while red for the lower part of the face was a feature of Dakota face painting. In the second place, the combination of the latter mode, evidently as a means of distinction, with a certain form of hairdressing peculiar to the hero, whenever this feature can be clearly discerned, strengthens the conclusion. The coiffure referred to consists in the wearing of short side locks cut off square at the bottom, a long queue, and a forelock sometimes tied or otherwise stiffened into an erect position. This was a Dakota style of hairdressing, and these three features of the coiffure are not found combined in the case of any other figures on the robe. There is also some evidence of an attempt to distinguish between the stiffened forelock of the hero and a more erect and prominent topknot such as was worn by the Crows. Finally the execution of the painted figures, and especially of the horses, belongs to the best style of these drawings, such, namely, as were executed by the Dakota. The grace and naturalness of action of most of the chargers and their pleasing proportions, apart from the exaggeration of both length and thickness of neck in a few instances, leave little to be desired in the matter of the simplicity and vigour combined with sureness of line with which the effects are achieved.

There are depicted on the robe twenty five, or perhaps twenty seven, distinct episodes connected with the military career of the owner. In most of these he can be identified with certainty by means of attributes which accompany the representation of a figure invariably victorious in combat or raid; in the others the conclusion is justifiable, since this is a triumphant record of success in the pursuit of military glory, that the figure of the victor is also that of the chief who always carries off the honours elsewhere in this gallery of battle pieces.

The hero and owner, probably also the author, of the record is recognizable in the first place and with the greatest degree of certainty from his shield. It bears, as his device or cognizance, a drawing in black, or the nearest approximation to that colour available for the artist, of the fore quarters of some beast, probably a bear. The animal of the shield is depicted with varying degrees of realism. The gaping jaws, as in group 5, the group at the extreme left in the second row of pictures from the bottom of the robe, or in group 8—that at the extreme right of the same row—become in groups 1 and 4, immediately below 8 and 5 respectively, a slit which practically bisects the head of the animal, seen in profile in all these cases. In some instances, on the other hand, as in groups 21 and 23, the two outer groups of the second row from the top of the robe, the head is pictured as if seen from above, the aspect which is common to all representations of the forelegs, with one exception. This occurs in the case of the group which is intermediate to the two last mentioned, where only one foreleg is shown in an attempt to depict the fore quarters and head of the beast—all that is anywhere depicted—in profile.

A sketch of a figure on horseback wearing a mowhawk like headdress stabbing or directing a figure on foot in front of them
From Group 7.

In what follows the groups are enumerated from right to left, beginning at the lower corner on the reader’s right and proceeding horizontally to the left, then reversing the direction for the row above, and so on upwards. There are three somewhat unevenly placed horizontal rows below the stripe of quill work and four above, the topmost row containing only two groups.

The shield with the device just described is carried by the principal figure in each of the following groups-1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 17, 21, 22, 23, and 25. The hero appears thus unmistakably characterized sixteen times. In the case of group 12, a rent in the hide has removed the greater part of the figure of the rider and the hind quarters of his mount; but a part of the long feather streamers of the shield is visible, and as none of the shields carried by other personages in the pictures is represented with these long streamers, it is practically certain that this figure is again that of the hero.

In group 2, where a mounted warrior has been unhorsed and apparently slain by the arrows of an unmounted bowman, the identification must remain merely probable, on the assumption that the victor is ipso facto the hero. An alternative possibility is that the overthrown brave may have been a member of the same band or society as the hero, or a kinsman, whose death at the hands of the unidentified bowman may have led to an act of revenge committed by the hero and recorded in one of the other episodes.

Sketch of a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and carrying a shield running down a figure on foot in front of them
From Group 8.

In group 9, where the principal figure is without a shield, he may be identified with considerable probability, apart from the general assumption that chief actor is identical with owner or hero, from the arrangement of his hair and from the streamer attached to the back of his head, which is almost identical with the one worn by the horseman at the right in group 17, the second group from the right in the second row above the quillwork stripe. The latter personage is identified as the hero by his shield. The two types of coiffure in these figures are the same. The streamer is of ermine skins tied with a band of red cloth near the lower extremity.

In group 16, three factors besides the general assumption cumulatively bring the probability of the chief character’s identification close to certainty: his coiffure, which may be compared with that of the corresponding figures in groups 9 and 17, the nature of his exploit, and the way in which his face is painted. Clad only, except for a breech cloth, in a pair of red leggings, he comes up at a run and strikes his opponent over the head with a bow.11 This was regarded among the Dakota as one of the most remarkable deeds of bravery that could be accomplished by a warrior, and it is not likely that an exploit of such a nature performed by any one else would be commemorated in a record whose principal object was the glorification of the recorder. Finally, the lower part of the face of this egregious performer of heroic deeds is painted red, a feature of one mode of Dakota face painting which is found also in the case of the principal performer in groups 3, 6, 8, 13, 14, 15, and 23, in all of which he is identified by his shield as the hero.

The horseman in No. 18, though almost completely disguised in tail coat, trousers, and boots of quite Parisian modishness, reveals himself through his face painting and his coiffure, which are the same as those just referred to for the individual in group 16. The hair and the back streamer of the pursuing horseman in group 19 are his only physical marks of identification. For the former feature, what has been said of the individuals in groups 16 and 18, and for the latter, of those in 9 and 17, is relevant here. In groups 20 and 24, identification remains problematical, only the general consideration repeatedly alluded to being applicable; in No. 20 we cannot even be certain which of the two figures is to be regarded as the victor. Whatever device may originally have been painted on the shield at the back of the man in the dark shirt, can no longer be deciphered.

Sketch of a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and carrying a shield running down a figure on the ground in front of them
From Group 10.

It appears then that, taking the number of groups as twenty five, the hero of the record can be identified with certainty in sixteen of these groups, and with considerable probability in seven others. If only the sixteen first mentioned are to be considered, they are sufficient to show that this is a personal record or biography, and not a time count or calendar. In group 7, which includes four closely associated figures, it is possible that two distinct fights in which the hero was engaged are recorded, and the same thing is true of group 12. These groups are respectively the second from the right in the second row from the bottom, and the last on the left (six figures including what is left of the horseman and his horse) in the row above. The two upper figures in the former group are shown in the process of losing and gaining respectively a scalp. It is possible that this may have been another incident in a battle in which the most important event, from the recorder’s point of view, is shown below. On the other hand it may have been an entirely distinct scalping exploit on the part of the hero, and have been squeezed into the row, after the completion of the latter, as an afterthought. This seems less likely; but there is no means either of deciding the point or of identifying the actors in the scene. In group 12 the four figures on, the left may possibly stand for an episode distinct from that represented by the other two; but in view of the fact that the six figures are placed quite close together in spite of there being plenty of room in this part of the robe, it seems more likely that only one event, or two episodes of it, are here depicted. If these two groups are to be split up, we have a biography in twenty seven instead of twenty five chapters, and two more cases in which the positive identification of the hero seems impossible.

In three cases we may perhaps have the record of intestine strife. The defeated warriors in groups 10, 15, and 21—the second group from the right, the first on the right, and the first on the left in the third, fourth and sixth rows, respectively, counting from the bottom of the robe—all have their faces painted in the same manner as that of the hero. Of his antagonists in the remaining groups, seven are Crow Indians, if we may judge from the fact that their foreheads are painted red, a mark, as we have seen, by which the Dakota were accustomed to distinguish these people, their inveterate enemies, when they represented the latter on painted robes.12 These are the man with a bow in group 6, the second group from the left in the second row, the two unmounted men in the group to the left of this, the right hand man among the unmounted figures at the extreme left of the row next above, the unmounted man with the bow in the group immediately above this, the horseman with the dark mount in the second group from the right in the fifth row, and the figure with the shield at his back at the extreme left of the same row. The body painting of two of these individuals closely resembles that of a Cheyenne depicted on a buffalo robe which figures in the album of plates appended to Maximilian of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America as the property of Matatope, a Mandan chief.13 Perhaps, as Mallery suggests in a similar connection,14 the Dakota may have tended to apply a mark originally peculiar to the enemy, par excellence, to other enemies, simply because they shared Crow or Cheyenne quality as such; they would thus by a process of generalization have arrived at something very like an ideograph for “enemy.” The body painting referred to is the horizontal striping down the side of the body from shoulder to ankle which appears on the erect figure above and to the right of the first large quillwork disc at the left of the robe, and on the kneeling figure at the left of the second horizontal row. In the latter case the arm and part of the thigh are free from stripes; in the former the marking is practically identical with that of Matatope’s Cheyenne. These people, though later allied with the Sioux, were hostile to them down to the early part of the nineteenth century, a period to which at latest the buffalo robe now in question certainly belongs. In a few cases, including some of those with foreheads painted red, an arrangement of the hair which resembles the Crow topknot is found. In one case, at least, this is combined with a fashion of supplementing and adorning the long back locks which resembles the horsehair coiffure invented by the Crow though not confined to them.

Sketch of a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and carrying a shield running down a figure on foot with a spear in front of them, the horse is rearing on its hind legs
From Group 13.

The man who is being struck on the head with a bow, thus providing our hero with the opportunity for recording a first class military achievement, wears a long queue to which are attached several yellow (or brass) discs. D. I. Bushnell15 states on the authority of Dodge, Maximilian of Vied, and a note attached to a specimen in the National Museum, that this form of queue has been observed among the Comanche, Kiowa, Dakota, and Ta-a-wash (?Tawe-hash) Indians. Maximilian16 also reports this or something very like it as a Mandan fashion.

In group 9, at the extreme right of the third horizontal row, the antagonist on foot is meeting the hero’s charge with a rain of bullets, the direction of which is shown by a number of short strokes ending in round marks, the latter denoting the bullet itself and the former, roughly, the direction of its point of origin. Although the hero is armed only with a lance, the issue of the fight is not in doubt. He got the rifleman’s scalp, a fact which is indicated by a smear of red on the hair. The unmounted combatant wears a sash, the loop of which, coloured red, surrounds the upper part of his body while the dark coloured end streams behind in a way evidently intended to emphasize the not very striking impression of speed in running to meet his fate given by the awkwardly bent knees. These sashes were badges of high office in several military societies among Plains tribes, neighbours of the Dakota, and among the Dakota themselves. In some cases, those entitled to wear the sashes as military insignia carried into battle a stake or a lance with which they fastened the end of the sash to the ground, in token that they would fight at that spot to the death, if need were. If his friends fled, the wearer of the sash must remain to carry out his sworn resolve unless a comrade pulled up the stake and thus released him from his moral obligation as well as from his actual tether. If this man is a Crow, and the form of his topknot may perhaps indicate this, it does not appear that the wearing of the sash involved any such form of premeditated suicide for him. The lance which appears in close association with the sash is probably not intended to represent one which the wearer of the sash would use to tether himself to—he is certainly not depicted as a fixture here—but is probably a symbolic repetition of the lance of the rider intended to record emphatically the fact that the latter personage successfully pitted cold steel against bullets and to show where the lance took effect. The second gun, placed beside the second lance, is no doubt a memorandum of the capture of the gun shown below in the hands of the original owner.

two figures on horseback, both wearing long headdresses, the horses are galloping
From Group 14.

If it is not possible without a history of the robe, which we do not possess, to ascertain the personal as distinct from the national identity of the owner of the robe, we can learn something of his position in society from the record before us. At eight points on the robe he has placed a tally of his takings in scalps or horses or both in connection with the painted episode next to which the tally stands. Each time the score is accompanied by the representation of a typical Plains pipe and of a rod from which a scalp—sometimes more than one—is suspended. The pipe, in such a context as this, is the mark of the socalled partisan, a word which, in this usage, signifies the leader of a war party. It was carried into battle slung on the back of the leader or held up by him in front of his body as a sign of his authority.17 The leadership of a war party was one of the stages in a warrior’s advance to the rank of chief, a position which we may perhaps conclude was attained by the owner of this robe from the fact that wherever he is represented wearing the war bonnet with the long streamer of eagle feathers this is provided with buffalo horns attached at the side of the head.18

Scalps taken by the members of a war party were attached to rods in the manner indicated here. The skin, painted red, was stretched over a hoop which was tied to the rod. The trophies were borne in advance of the returning war party and handed over to the wives of the takers, who carried the rods with their grisly emblems of victory in the scalp dance.19 The scalps were not afterwards always preserved whole; locks of hair were sometimes taken from them to form the fringes which adorned the scalp shirts or leggings of the warriors. In several groups, as in the second from the right in the second row, the fourth from the right in the fifth row, and the second from the right in the sixth row, the hero’s charger carries a scalp dangling from the bridle. This does not represent a freshly taken scalp, but one which had been previously used in the scalp dance and preserved afterwards for this special purpose. In all cases the circle representing the scalp proper is painted red, the streaming locks are black (dark brown).

a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and carrying a shield, the horse is galloping
From Group 15.

In all the tallies appended to the realistic representations of selected incidents in battles or raids, except two, a single scalp hangs from the rod. The number of slain is shown, presumably, by the open circles to which is sometimes added a schematic representation of drooping hair. The most notable exception occurs in the lower left hand corner of the robe, where five scalps are shown attached to the rod, while only three heads appear in the score. Since, here as elsewhere, the upper part of the circular outline of these conventional symbols for lives taken is smeared with red, the intention is undoubtedly to indicate that these slain were also scalped. If, as seems likely, the signification of the single scalp attached to the pole in the other tallies is merely a general intimation that scalps were carried home, while the actual number of these trophies is given by the conventional heads, why should five scalp symbols be attached to the pole in group 4? Perhaps the answer is that scalps were not taken only from the slain. The kneeling victim in the middle of the second horizontal row of pictures is obviously not a corpse. It may be that the extra scalps tallied for group 4 were taken from the living.

Group 24 (top row, right) represents a raid on two tipis, designated by three or four sticks crossing each other above, in which one of the defenders armed with a gun is being shot down as he attempts to escape. Here the tally in the corner includes three slain. The representation of these is somewhat less schematic than in the other cases. An open rectangle is added to the circle, so that we have head and trunk represented. In no case is the outline closed. This perhaps denotes “nothing inside”—death.20 The same sort of symbolism appears in the less formalized tally in group 23 immediately below, in the next group to the left of this (one head), in the first group on the right in the row just below (two heads and shoulders), and in the case of the enigmatically gigantic head in the middle of this last row.

a figure on horseback carrying a shield
From Group 17.

In two cases the score of scalps and of the killed is accompanied by rows of semicircular marks, representing the tracks of horses. This is a conventional way of recording the number of horses captured. In the lower right hand corner, where the tally is presumably a record of the results of a raid or battle in which the duel pictured in group I was, for the recorder, the most interesting incident, the amount of booty is registered as thirty four head of horses. This does not necessarily mean that the hero was personally responsible for all these captures; since he was leader of the war party, as the pipe, indistinctly visible below the row of heads, indicates, he would receive credit for them. The number of horses he is credited with, as leader in one of the two exploits recorded in the immediate neighbourhood of the tally set down in the upper right hand corner is thirty nine. The similar marks above and below the horse of his opponent in the upper left hand corner denote, if they are not here simply an indication of the direction taken by the charges of enemy horsemen, a much smaller number of horses captured. In this fight the recorder does not appear as a leader.

An interesting variety of weapons is shown in the pictures: the lance, in some cases elaborately decorated with eagles’ feathers, in others having only one or two feathers at the butt; the bow; the tomahawk; the scalping knife; the gun; and the cavalry sabre. In two places the tomahawk appears as the weapon by which an enemy was slain: in group 5, at the left end of the second horizontal row of pictures counting from the bottom, the unmounted man standing behind the kneeling bowman is shown with a tomahawk in close contact with his head, and the case is the same of the individual whose head and shoulders only appear in the middle of the second row from the top. This is a common method of specifying the means by which a man was killed. In this connection a fine bit of swagger may be noted. The foremost pedestrian figure of the group last mentioned was knocked on the head with a gun butt although himself armed with a weapon whose effective use would have prevented a fight at close quarters. It is the same sort of practical irony as is depicted in the scene already referred to where a man is being brought down at close quarters by what would seem to most people a quite improper use of the bow. In the group which includes this episode, the first incomplete figure in the rear of the man who is receiving what has been described as the greatest possible insult that could be offered to a Plains warrior21 exhibits a somewhat unusual feature. The usual means of representing a scalping is by painting the top of the head red. Here the operation is denoted by picturing a scalping knife in contact with the head; the form of the weapon may be compared with that of the knife employed in the scalping scene depicted below in the middle of the second row. In the former case the victim seems to have a beard ; perhaps he is a white man, the only one appearing in this record. The triangular black mark on the chin of the individual carrying a shield bearing a modification of the hero’s device in group 22, the second from the right of the second row from the top, is no doubt a feature of his war paint.

A figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and carrying a shield, the horse is rearing on its hind legs
From Group 21.

The question of the hero’s relations with the white man cannot be determined from anything in this record. He appears to have a definite fondness for European clothes. His appearance in full European costume, except for the hat, in group 18 has already been noticed. In a dozen cases at least he wears a long-skirted uniform coat of much the same pattern as that which in Maximilian’s time (1832-1834) and earlier was a customary gift from white traders and frontier officials, both British and American, to Indian chiefs. In most of the pictures in which it appears here as worn by the hero this coat is dark with red pocket flap and facings; in three cases, at least, it is red. This may possibly indicate friendly relations with both British (Canadians) and Americans, though of course, such garments might have been obtained by methods quite the reverse of friendly. Two pieces of inconclusive evidence point in both directions. On the one hand, there is what appears to be the scalping of a white man already referred to. But, if the victim is in fact a white man, is it certain that the scalping was perpetrated by the hero? As we have seen, the daring bowman in this group is probably he. But was the scalp taken by him? The unusual mode of representing the operation permits a doubt on this point; it is possible that the victim may have fallen before the enemy on whom the hero is inflicting such signal disgrace. In the third group to the left of this a personage who we have found reason to believe is the hero, in a uniform coat of possibly American origin, is pursuing another Indian, probably a Crow, to judge from the red paint on his forehead, who is carrying off an American flag in which he has draped himself. The record is not unambiguous, but it looks rather like the performance of an act friendly to Americans. As a matter of fact the Dakota, who had entered into friendly relations with the British when the latter assumed control of Canada, remained their allies until the war of 1812. In 1815 the government of the United States entered into a formal treaty of peace with the Dakota, which continued to be observed for a long time thereafter. In Maximilian’s time the Dakota, with the exception of one group, were known as friends of the Americans.

When mounted the hero uses indiscriminately a native weapon, the lance, and two weapons of European origin, the cavalry sabre and the gun. The gun and the lance appear to have about an equal claim to his favour; in at least one case he carries both. The sabre appears twice: in group 1 at the lower right hand corner of the robe, where it is opposed to the lance, and in group 17, second from the right of the fifth row, where the hero carries also a gun and is opposed by two other horsemen, the foremost of whom seems to be grasping the bridle of the hero’s horse. No weapon of this antagonist is visible; perhaps the gun held in the hero’s left hand has been taken from this man. The third horeseman is armed with a lance.

a figure on horseback carrying a shield, their hair in a ponytail, the horse is rearing on its hind legs
From Group 22.

In most cases when a gun is carried—sometimes no more than the end of the barrel is shown projecting beyond the chest of the charger—the lower edge of the barrel is outlined in red. No doubt this is intended to represent the ramrod, which was sometimes decorated with red cloth.22 As it was then immobilized for practical use, a second one was carried, detached from the gun. Red is symbolic of strength and success, of victory its objective tokens on the body of a combatant, wounds and death by wounds; and that the ramrod came to symbolize the victory compelling power of the gun, among the Teton Dakota at any rate, seems to be implied also by the fact that when an enemy was killed with a musket, the slayer was entitled to wear in his hair a small piece of wood which was said to represent a ramrod.23

The occasional apparently indiscriminate placing of guns not held by anyone among the figures which compose the different scenes of the record on the robe demands a word of comment. Allusion has already been made to two cases of this, in groups 9 and 22. Two ostensibly ownerless muskets are shown in the contest between two unmounted warriors in a camp of five tipis which is depicted immediately above the last large quillwork disc at the left of the robe. The explanation here is sufficiently obvious. The fighters, originally armed with guns, have discharged them without effect and come to grips with natural weapons. In the scalping scene in the middle of the second row of pictures a musket appears behind the operator. This is the weapon with which he has previously wounded in two places the now helpless brave who kneels before him. The conventional sign for bullets, a line terminating in a small round mark, is seen to end at two points on and just below the right shoulder of the victim. In the case of the two men struggling for the possession of a musket in the group between the two large rents in the robe, the man on the right having vainly discharged his piece is trying to wrest his opponent’s from him after throwing aside his own. The abandonment of the now useless piece is obvious; its ownership is indicated by its position close to the body of the combatant at the right.

a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and carrying a shield, the horse is galloping
From Group 23.

The colouring of the horses in the different groups shows considerable variety. In group 1 the hero’s horse, at the left, is painted red with a dark mane and tail. Red, being symbolic of vigor and success, was a favourite colour for the painting of the war horse. The zigzag marking traced in green on the legs of this horse, and showing more vividly in red and white on the legs of the antagonist’s black charger, is the symbol for lightning—speed and death. This symbol would be doubly appropriate in this position. It was a creditable military exploit to ride down an unmounted opponent, more creditable still if the opponent’s death resulted from the act. Thunder was associated by the Dakota with a bird, the thunder bird, commonly represented as an eagle, but also with other creatures, especially the war horse. The horse, whose origin was mysterious to the Indian, came to be regarded as the gift of that mysterious natural force, the thunder. Hence the characteristic emanation of this force was appropriately represented on the legs of a war horse. In the case of the red horse, the symbol appears in green. Green and blue are not native colours; after the introduction of blue to the Plains Indians it often took the place of the native black (brown). Black, which was used in body painting to denote victory or enemies killed, seems also to have been connected with thunder and was sometimes replaced in this connection by blue. As blue and green were also sometimes interchangeable, this may possibly account for the use of green in the symbol for lightning on the legs and neck of the red horse; either black or, as in the case of the same symbol on the same parts of the other horse, red would have been more usual. The lightning symbol was sometimes painted green in reference to summer, the time for thunder storms. But green was also used to designate a chief, and this may account for the fact that in two cases the hero rides a green charger, and once wears a green coat, and that in several cases green takes the place of red for the strip of material which forms the foundation of his war bonnet and in the dyed horsehair elongations of the feathers, while the horns of the bonnet are in most cases green.24

The right to wear a bonnet of this kind, with the horns of a chief, could be won only on the battlefield by the performance of a certain number of exploits whose character was defined in a recognized code. The right depended ultimately in the winning of a certain number of honours or coups—the French word is generally used because it was that earliest applied by Europeans to this feature of the Indian military system, which was connected with the striking of blows in battle. The code is briefly and clearly summed up by Curtis as follows: “A coup could be won by actually killing an enemy, by striking the body of an enemy whether dead or alive, by capturing a horse or a band of horses, or by taking a scalp. Honors were counted on each hostile warrior by the first four who struck him, the first in each case winning the greatest renown. . . . But the greatest exploit of all was to ride into the midst of the enemy and strike a warrior in action without attempting to wound him. When a man had led four war parties, and in each achieved a first honour, he was eligible to chieftainship.”25 According to Mallery, “striking the enemy with a bow is considered the greatest insult that can be offered to another. The act of so doing also entitles the warrior to count one coup when relating his exploits in the council chamber.”26 A scene of this kind is depicted, as we have seen, on our robe. If we are to accept this as an exploit of the hero, as it almost certainly is, we have for him one coup at least of a nature which would count towards his claim to the rank of chief. The record shows besides, in the tallies previously spoken of, at least eight occasions when its principal character bore the pipe which was the mark of the leader of a war party. As to the other three exploits which were necessary, together with only one half of the instances actually recorded of leadership, to make him eligible for chiefly rank, I am unable to distinguish them, although they must be recorded on the robe. It is the view of Grinnell, which he appears to support mainly by evidence from the Cheyenne, that neither the taking of a scalp nor the mere killing of an enemy counted among the Plains Indians as a coup.27

a figure on horseback wearing a long headdress and carrying a shield, the horse is galloping
From Group 25.

1 Curtis, The American Indian, III, 19, 20, 65, 68, 89, 95 ff.; IV, 185; V, 63, 72, passim; Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied in R. G. Thwaites’ Early Western Travels, XXIII, 121; etc.
2 Thwaites (Maximilian), XXIII, 109; but see Catlin, The North American Indians, London, 1841, I, pp. 147 and 148.
3 Thwaites, XXIII, 260.
4 The Technique of Porcupine-Quill Decoration, Contributions from the Museum of the American Indian, Vol. IV. No. 1.
5 Cf. Wissler, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, XVIII, PI. XXXIX, Fig. 4; and Kroeber, loc. cit., passim.
6 Curtis, The American Indian, III, pp. 29, 69; Wissler, Some Protective Designs of the Dakota, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, I; etc.
7 Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, XVIII, Pl. LIT.
8 Kroeber, Ioc. cit., pp. 66, 67.
9 Curtis, The American Indian, III, p. 27.
10 10th Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, p. 631. See also pp. 383, 512, 380.
11 Mallery, 4th Report, pp. 211, 212.
12 Mallery, 4th Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, pp. 213, 214; 10th Report, p. 380.
13 See also Mallery, 10th Report, p. 382.
14 4th Report, loc. cit.
15 D. I. Bushnell, American Anthropologist, XI (N. S.), pp. 419, 420.
16 Thwaites (Maximilian), III, pp. 51-52.
17 Mallery, 4th Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, pp. 168, 169; 10th Report, p. 424; Thwaites (Maximilian), XXIII, pp. 350, 352-353.
18 Mallery, 10th Report, p. 424.
19 Op. cit., p. 448 and Fig. 587; Thwaites (Maximilian), XXIII, pp. 3.51, 352.
20 Cf. Mallery, 10th Report, p. 660, Fig. 1073.
21 Mallery, 4th Report, pp. 211, 212.
22 Thwaites(Maximilian),XXIII,p.357.
23 Op. cit., XXII, p. 326.
24 Cf. Wissier, Decorative Art of the Sioux Indians, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, XVIII (1904), p. 249; Some Protective Designs of the Dakota, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, I (1907), pp. 46, 48.
25 Curtis, III, p. 22.
26 4th Report, pp. 211, 212. See also 10tn Report, pp. 658, 659, Fig. 1062, and 4th Report, pp. 116, 117.
27 Coup and Scalp among the Plains Indians, American Anthropologist, N. S. XII(1910).

Cite This Article

Hall, Henry Usher. "A Buffalo Robe Biography." The Museum Journal XVII, no. 1 (March, 1926): 5-36. Accessed April 17, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/1365/


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