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Buffalo Robe

The people of the North American Plains were predominantly nomadic, living in large territories roamed by great herds of buffalo.
Early adopters of the horse, they lived in societies governed by profound military and religious traditions which produced richly decorated clothing and weaponry. The Plains peoples fought ferociously to maintain their independence as the European nations of North America spread westwards in the nineteenth century. Eventually, after decades of resistance, most Plains people were forced to live on reservations, where despite documented official efforts to eliminate them, traditional practices and languages have survived.

Blackfoot record of war exploits

Plains Indian men like the Blackfoot wore buffalo hides like this one as robes. They painted their warlike deeds onto them. Men gained honour from brave deeds in war, including striking or killing enemies, being wounded, capturing horses and taking scalps.
Buffalo Robe, before 1868 C.E., Blackfoot, painted buffalo skin, sinew 220 x 197 cm, upper Missouri River (Montana, Alberta) 
© Trustees of the British Museum
The owner of this robe is shown dressed in a yellow shirt with a war-bonnet on his head.  He is capturing a woman, firing arrows from behind a wounded horse, and holding four scalps from defeated enemies. The owner is certainly shown eight times, each with an eagle feather war bonnet and yellow shirt. In the middle and on the left he is portrayed with a calumet (pipe), indicating leadership in a war party. Though the artist is not known, the claw-like necklace does suggest a bear or eagle connection with his name.
Depictions of war exploits painted on hides were very popular up until the 19th century. Here one can see the protagonist holding scalps, killing and touching enemies including a woman visible on the bottom left hand corner.
The dead (detail), Buffalo Robe, before 1868 C.E., Blackfoot, painted buffalo skin, sinew, 220 x 197 cm, upper Missouri River (Montana, Alberta) © Trustees of the British Museum
Buffalo Robe (detail with woman), before 1868 C.E., Blackfoot, upper Missouri River (Montana, Alberta), painted buffalo skin, sinew 220 x 197 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum
Four depictions of enlarged red scalps are shown with paths connecting the owner to the dead, scalped enemy. On the middle right is a shield, painted red with green stars, representing the personal medicine of the owner. On the left-hand side the warrior is depicted capturing a woman, dressed in green, and above them he is shown sheltering behind his horse, wounded in the leg, and firing arrows.
The decoration of war robes and other types of shirt use a number of elements to convey the event: personal medicine, symbolism, the use of synonyms (here the use of claws suggests that the owner might have had a name such as White Eagle, or Lone Bear), metonyms (where something is named or illustrated by one of its attributes, for example 'war bonnet' for "chief").
© Trustees of the British Museum

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