READING, PA.- The Reading Public Museum
announced the display of one of its most important objects, a painted buffalo hide robe from the early decades of the nineteenth century. The hide robe will be on view, alongside addition objects from Plains nations including the Lakota, in The Museums North American Indian Gallery on the first floor. Less than 30 examples survive from this early period, and pictorial buffalo hides are among the most impressive early contact objects.
Probably painted in the Northern Missouri River area, this extraordinary pictorial buffalo hide painting likely depicts a battle scene featuring more than 50 human figures and 18 green, red, and black horses. The scenes are arranged in registers across the canvas of the buffalo hide, above and below the central seam. The action ranges from warriors on horseback bearing circular shields, shooting arrows, and swinging clubs, to hand to hand combat and other skirmishes between enemies. There are at least three guns among the weapons pictured and one scalping scene.
The complex subject matter of the robe represents a tradition known as Plains biographical painting. Expertly tanned by women, buffalo hides were worn by both men and women, and used in the recording and proclaiming of a warriors exploits. The execution of the hide painting certainly took place before the middle of the nineteenth century, a period from which very few examples survive. Early examples from this period are part of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, one of which was collected from the Mandan tribe in 1805 on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition and shipped to President Thomas Jefferson.
The painted buffalo hide robes were worn wrapped lengthwise around the body, and the painted designs were visible in cold weather, when the fur was turned to the inside. Most, including the current example, retain the stake holes through which pegs were driven during the dressing process.
The Plains nations depended on the buffalo for food, and its hides for shelter and clothing. By the mid-1880s, buffalo were at the brink of extinction, having been over-hunted for their hides. Despite this decline, buffalo and their hides, along with feather headdresses and fringed, beaded clothing, became standard North American Indian symbols in twentieth-century popular culture.