Haloed by the bowed branch of a leafy tree and graced by the touch of limpid ripples of a passing stream, these two Snake Indian women enjoy the charms of a soft summer’s day. They evince an idyllic charm, one that embodies all the appeal of life in the wilds. Nothing could be more tender for a viewer, nor more alluring to a painter of romantic, inclinations than an image such as this.
Peter H. Hassrick
This Miller image depicts women from the Snake or Shoshone tribe. During his 1834 trip to the annual fur trade rendezvous, William Marshall Anderson stated that these Indians were made up of two bands. One was so poor as to be called “diggers,” meaning they did not own enough horses to follow the buffalo so had to subsist on roots and small game. The other band lived in the western mountain valleys and owned plenty of horses so where referred to as the “buffalo Shoshone.” The women in the painting appear to be members of the latter Shoshone band.
One of the earliest accounts of life in the Shoshone tribe comes from Meriwether Lewis. His journal entry dated August 19, 1805, includes these comments:
The Shoshonees may be estimated at about 100 warriors, and about three times that number of women and children … The man is the sole proprietor of his wives and wives and daughters, and can barter or dispose of either as he thinks proper … the girl remains with her parents until she is conceived to have obtained the age of puberty which with them is considered to be about the age of 13 or 14 years … the female at this age is surrendered to her sovereign lord and husband agreeably to contract … They treat their women but with little respect, and compel them to perform every species of drudgery.
On the left side of the painting, there appears to be a baby’s cradle leans against a tree.
The infants of Plains Indian tribes such as the Shoshone, spent their first two years of life in a cradle. Most often made from buffalo rawhide, the cradle served as crib, playpen, high chair and horse seat. Some tribes attached the rawhide envelope of the cradle to a wooden frame which made carrying the baby while doing chores, walking or riding on horseback much easier and safer. Cradles were usually made by the expectant baby’s grandmother and elaborately decorated with quill or bead embroidery. Tribes close to the Rocky Mountains often used an inverted U-shaped cradle. A flat board was cut to be wider at the top than the bottom, curved at both ends and covered with buckskin. This covering was tight across the top and arranged to carry the baby on the lower two-thirds of the board.
The foremost woman wears a typical fringed buckskin dress and a striped blanket as a head covering as she dips her kettle into the stream. The woman behind her appears to be covered in a red blanket. When wool blankets were introduced to Plains Indian tribes by European and American traders, they quickly became a popular trade item. Both men and women used the blanket as a cape as well as for bedding. Although men used the blanket coat or capote, women did not give up blanketed capes in favor of coats until much later. The popularity of wool trade blankets was due to its practical advantages over leather or animal pelts when it came to warmth, not to mention the appeal of a colorful garment. White blankets with red stripes, and “point” blankets in green, red and white, all with black bars, were popular with the western tribes. These “points” were indicators of the size of the blanket.
For Further Reading:
Hail, Barbara A., Hau, Kola!
Moulton, Gary E., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. 5
Potter, Gail D. and James A. Hanson, “Clothing and Textiles of the Fur Trade,” The Encyclopedia of Trade Goods, Vol. 4
UR: Indian Women, Snake Tribe, Oregon
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; The Boatmen’s National Bank of St. Louis, MO; Bank of America, New York, NY; present owner, 2013