One of the most impressive objects of Plains material culture is the decorated buffalo robe. Highly elaborated robes affected a handsome presence for the wearer, with some robes functioning as canvases on which combat vignettes were painted and thus attested to the wearer’s prowess in battle. (See: Ellis 2005, pg. 27) Another type of decorated buffalo robe bore a specific kind of stylized imagery, known today as the box and border design. This design is defined by two basic elements: a continuous band just inside the border of the robe and a central box-like motif. Together these are believed to portray the living animal itself, the bison which many Native peoples depended so heavily upon in times past. The act of donning a box and border robe expressed respect for the buffalo and constituted a prayer for success in the hunt.
Robes with box and border designs are largely considered to be of Lakota (Western Sioux) origin, with a much smaller number believed to have been made by the Arapaho. Almost all are decorated with painted designs applied with earthen pigments, while much rarer, are a small number of beaded examples including the outstanding robe seen here. This robe closely relates to one collected by Dr. Clark Wissler on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1902, now part of the collection of the American Museum of Natural History (Cat. No. 50-3100).
The fine box and border robe illustrated here displays a skillful execution of its beaded design elements on a yellow pigmented field. The rarity and beauty of this robe make it an important addition to the corpus of Plains Indian art.