A COAT TO PLEASE THE CARIBOU
The following notes relate to a coat made of native-tanned caribou skin, decorated with painted designs. At centre-back below the waist a triangular gusset has been inserted.
This coat was sold at Waddington's Auctions, Toronto, November 8, 2004. According to family tradition this coat was acquired from Iroquois Indians by Theophilus Yale, while he resided at Saint Andre-Est on the Ottawa River in Quebec, between 1783 and 1805. St.Andre is located not far from Oka, the residence of the Iroquois with whom Mr.Yale had a friendly connection. The f airly detailed family tradition has checked out to be reliable, and implies that this coat was made before 1805. This conclusion is amazing, seeing that most surviving coats of this type are of a later date. However, the Iroquois friends of Mr.Yale did not make this coat; they had acquired it from northern Quebec, presumably in the context of regional fur trade.
Coats of this type were worn by the Indian hunters in Labrador and northern Quebec during the annual fall migration of the huge caribou herds. Similar coats with fur on the inside were worn during the winter hunt. The distinctive painted decoration was not restricted to these coats; also caps, leggings, mittens, and moccasins were painted in this fashion. The people formerly wearing such garments are referred to as Naskapi in Labrador and as Montagnais in Quebec. Within reach of the French colonial fur trade, the Montagnais replaced their skin garments by cloth' versions already before 1800; most of the surviving painted skin garments originated from the more remote Naskapi.
Skin-painting survived among the Naskapi until c.1930, when a smallpox epidemic decimated the northern bands. By that time, however, the paintings had already since long lost the quality and complexity pictured on this particular coat. The delicate traditional style of painting on this coat compares well with other examples from the mid-nineteenth century (Burnham, 1992; examples nrs. 31,33,34,39). Suggesting an earlier production date is the inverted triangle centre-back above the waist, and the three triangles filled with elaborate designs on both sides of the main triangle centre-back below the waist (Burnham, p.34). In the initial cursory view of this coat the narrow folded collar suggested an origin of c.1900, until it was noticed that this collar has painted decorations on both sides, and that the upper part of the back is unusually devoid of decoration. These details strongly suggest that the narrow collar was intended to stand up, and that an additional wide collar (like a small cape) used to cover the upper part of the back. This construction is visible on several coats from the earliest years of the nineteenth century, pictured in Burnham (examples nrs. 22,34,35,39).
Most unusual is the sewing of this coat with cotton thread instead of native sinew. This suggests that the people who made this coat lived within easy reach of a trading post, i.e. not by the remote Bands in Labrador. This evidence of trade contact and the pre-1805 date of this coat opens the possibility that this is one of the very few surviving Montagnais examples.
The cut of these coats was influenced by European fashion of the 18th century. The Indian version required one caribou skin for the back, a second skin for the two sides of the front, and a third for sleeves, collar, and inserted gusset. Selected skins were prepared by repeated dryings, scraping, stretching, and rubbings with decomposed caribou brains. Dry-freezing produced the near-white colour of the prepared skins. Many of these coats, including this example, show some native repairs of the holes made by warble flies.
Colour was carefully applied with a bone stylus instead of a brush; parallel lines were drawn with a stylus shaped like a fork. The yellow colour was made of fish-roe, black from burnt bones, most of the red pigments was acquired from fur traders. The reddish-brown around the upper part of the sleeves is a native pigment, absent on later coats. The total absence of "laundry blue" supports the pre-1850 origin of this coat. All the pigments, including the imports, were held in a fish-roe binding medium.
These coats were closed by means of a belt or sash around the middle; the button near the collar and remnants of strings along the inside of the front were probably non-native additions. These coats were very popular among French-Canadian trappers after they were discarded by the Indians. The latter had new coats made every year for religious reasons.
The painted skin garments of the Naskapi-Montagnais hunters relate to a worldview that is totally foreign to us. It is a worldview of people who almost exclusively depended on hunting; people who felt that their success in hunting depended on the goodwill of game spirits. These spiritual "masters" of the game were honored by the colorful treatment of the animal skins made into the hunters’ clothing. In return for this expression of respect these spirits sent their game to the hunters (Speck, 1935:192).
Most important among these spirits was the Lord of the Caribou - Katipenimitak - who resided with his caribou herds in a remote mountain range that was believed to be thickly covered with the white hair of generations of caribou. It is this legendary mountain residence, "Caribou House", that is symbolized by the triangular inserted gusset in the lower back of the hunter’s coat.
The off-white colour of the tanned skin is the symbol for caribou, and also in other parts of the Canadian North the Indians have stated that the caribou are attracted by white dress. Basic to many of the painted designs is a double curve, symbolic of caribou antlers. Parallel lines stand for trails of the caribou herds, and for tracks of toboggans loaded with meat. Red paint symbolized blood. The sophistication of women’s aesthetic values are manifest in this art work. In prayer and blessings the new coat acquired magical powers to ensure success in hunting, though these powers were believed to disappear gradually. The need for two new painted coats (late summer and winter) required the work of a talented woman, who was exempted from the daily chores in the family camp. Monogamous marriage pro¬pagated by missionaries in the late 19th century caused the change to shorter coats with simplified and poorer paintings.
Most of the surviving coats of this type have since long been gathered in museum collections; it is very seldom that such a coat becomes available nowadays. This coat shows the wear of its great age, but the cut and its elaborate painting reveal its origin from the highdays of a spiritual art tradition, now gone forever.
Burnham, D.K., "To Please the Caribou". Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 1992.
Speck, F.G., "Naskapi, the Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula". Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Okla., 1935.
Drs. T.J. Brasser
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