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Medicine Robe

Plains Cree
Southern Saskatchewan

ca. 1870

commercial wool broadcloth, brass bells, glass beads, silk ribbon, ermine tails
width: 61"
height: 55"

Inventory # P1678

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PROVENANCE

For many years this robe was displayed at a sporting goods store at Havre, Montana, on the border to the Rocky Boy reservation
Neal R. Smith, Denver, Colorado
Chester Dentan, Seattle, Washington

This robe, one of only three examples extant, with the circles representing hailstones, and the human figure below a crescent moon representing "earth man", almost certainly belonged to a medicine pipe-keeper

Essay

While the literature on Plains Cree ceremonialism does not specifically mention robes of this type, comparisons can be made to the iconography of other art forms of the Plains Cree and some of their neighboring tribes.

This robe consists of a blue woolen broadcloth blanket decorated  with approximately 70 appliquéd red cloth discs. Attached to the center of each disc is a brass bell and an ermine tail, now slightly distressed due to the robe’s considerable age. At the center of two beaded discs is a human figure beneath a crescent moon, also in red cloth appliqué.

This striking robe bears a remarkable resemblance to the only other known robe of this type, now in the collection of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta. The Glenbow robe belonged to Mootie, a member of Chief Day Star’s band, a Plains Cree group from Southern Alberta. According to his descendants, Mootie derived magical protection in warfare from this robe during the 19th century (Dr. Ted Brasser, personal communication, 1997.)

We know that moon crescents were traditionally pictured above Thunderbirds on Plains Cree painted tipis (Brasser. Ted, J. Pedigree of the Hugging Bear Tipi. American Indian Art Magazine, Vol.5. Fall, 1979, pg. 36), while pictured above human figures they indicate a human blessed with the sacred powers of Thunder. According to Plains Cree cosmology, keepers of medicine pipes were also pictured with crescent moons overhead. It was Thunder who gave the first medicine pipe to Earthman, the first human being (see: Brasser, Ted, J. Backrest Banners Among the Plains Cree and Plains Ojibwa. American Indian Art Magazine, Winter, 1984, pg. 57). In Plains Cree iconography, Thunder can be represented either as a large bird or by a panel filled with dots or discs representing hailstones. War shirts of some warriors were covered with small hide discs, honoring Thunder in his role as the great warrior of the sky. It is also interesting to note that a hailstone painted robe was used by the medicine pipe keeper of the neighboring Blackfoot people (see: Wissler, Clark. Ceremonial Bundles of the Blackfoot Indians. Anthropological Papers of the Museum of Natural History, Vol. 7, Part 2. New York: 1912, pg. 138).

Attempts to identify undocumented and uncommon objects is always difficult and definitive answers can seldom be found. We do know that blankets began to replace buffalo robes among the inhabitants of the Northern Plains beginning in the 1850’s. We also know that due to government suppression of Native ceremonialism, much of the elaborate regalia was no longer in use by the later part of the 19th century. With all of this information in hand, a strong case can be made that this important object is one of the few surviving robes of a Plains Cree Medicine pipe keeper.

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LEDGER DRAWING P4111

Anonymous ledger (pg 21)
Cheyenne

Central Plains

ca. 1880
P4111