Miller was impressed with many aspects of Indian women and their place in Native life. Two facets of their presence, though, appealed to him most strongly– their beautiful adornment and their peculiar social status. This small watercolor addresses both elements. The woman in this scene is attired as elegantly as any Miller saw, wrapped in a red stroud trade blanket and garbed in a fringed buckskin blouse. She mounts a horse whose caparison is equally elegant. Especially featured here are decorated and fringed cruppers complemented by a painted “possibles bag” behind her high pommeled saddle.
Miller also recognized that women in Plains Indian culture at that time were generally presented as blatantly subservient to their spouses. Couples rarely rode beside one another when traveling. Usually the husband led the duo, evidencing his perceived superior status and showing off his wife and her finery.
Peter H. Hassrick
Elk provided the Plains Indians with much more than just a quality source of red meat. Elk hides were tanned by the women into buckskin, somewhat heavier than deer buckskin, which was used to make moccasins, various types of bags, shield covers, and some articles of clothing. The elk’s massive antlers were used to make elaborate riding quirts, head dresses, hide scrapers, and saddle parts. Elk horn was also incorporated into the healing rites of some Plains tribes.
Each elk had two “special” teeth, which according to one Teton Sioux man were considered quite valuable: “In observing the elk it is found that two teeth remain after everything else has crumbled to dust. These teeth last longer than the life of a man, and for that reason the elk tooth has become the emblem of long life.” These particular teeth are the upper canines or milk teeth, that today’s hunters refer to as “elk ivories.” Because of this belief, these elk teeth were highly valued and used to decorate various personal articles such as dresses and necklaces. A George Catlin painting, done in 1832, shows a Mandan woman’s dress decorated with a row of elk teeth along the top. Swiss artist Rudolf Kurz executed a pencil drawing of Crow women at Fort Union in 1852 wearing elk tooth decorated dresses. He also noted that a hundred elk teeth would cost as much as a good horse.
In this painting, Miller depicted an Indian hunter in the foreground wearing a fringed buckskin shirt decorated with a large, colored disc on the back and a floral-patterned strip down the sleeve.
Miller does not provide enough detail in the painting to determine if such decorative items are made from quill or bead embroidery. While both quill and pony bead embroidery was practiced by the women of the tribes encountered by Miller, most of the large shirt discs in the 1830s were made with porcupine quills. The designs of porcupine quill ornamentation used by the tribes of the upper and lower Missouri River regions during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were predominately geometric. The basic elements of design included squares, diamonds, rectangles, triangles, and circles. The methods of attaching the flattened and dyed quills varied from sewing, and platting, to weaving or wrapping, depending on the article to be decorated.
Natural vegetable dyes were made from the roots of certain plants and fir tree moss. To dye the quills they, along with the specific color dye source, were put into a boiling concoction of currants and gooseberries for several hours. The acid extracted from the two berries by boiling caused the dye to become color-fast to the quills. Another method to color quills involved the use of mineral substances call mordents. Natural mordents included wood ash, various barks, berries, and urine. Once tribes made contact with white traders, women replaced natural vegetable dyes with colorants obtained from boiling cut up pieces of blanket and various colored trade cloth.
Warriors’ Hair Styles:
The two Snake Indian hunters in this painting are shown with a long, loose, though somewhat disheveled hair style. As most of the Plains Indian tribes believed that a person’s hair was an extension of their soul, they usually treated and groomed their hair with special care. This aspect of grooming caused George Catlin to remark: “They cultivated their hair to the greatest possible length, letting it flow over their shoulders and back and being unwilling to spare the smallest lock of it for any consideration.”
There was however, quite a wide range of men’s hair styles among the tribes. The men of the Shoshone, Blackfoot, Sioux, and Mandan usually wore their hair long and loose but often featured a flat lock in the middle of the forehead that was cut off square just above the eyes. Because the Crow considered braided hair to be disrespectful to ancient styles, both men and women styled their hair long and straight. Men generally followed the traditional method in the front by cutting the front lock off square and getting it to stand straight up by packing it with bear grease. This section of porcupine-looking hair was then coated with white or red clay for color. The other end of the Native hair style spectrum comes from the Iowas, Foxes, Omahas, Osages, Pawnees, and Sauks who sometimes shaved their heads, leaving only a two-inch-high tuft along the crown of the head. Early explorers also reported that men of some of the Lakota bands also shaved their heads.
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
Bebbington, Julia M., Quillwork of the Plains
Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
Hail, Barbara A., Hau, Kola!
Mails, Thomas E., Mystic Warriors of the Plains
LR mat: Indian Squaw / Caparison of the horse / Etiquette of riding with / the Chief. LR mat: seated a la Turque
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; Jack Bartfield; [Edward Eberstadt and Sons, New York, NY]; [John Howell-Books, San Francisco, CA, 1961]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1964