Article by Theodore Brasser

 COAT MADE OF CARIBOU SKIN, length 52 inches, sewn with sinew thread, and decorated with paintings in red, black, and yellow. Chemical tests have identified the red and black as native earth pigments and the yellow as a protein, probably of fish roe.

Shortly before 1869, this coat was acquired by the Sir William Turner Hospital in Redcar, North Yorkshire. It was donated by William Stokes, retired First Mate, one of the old and infirm seamen for whom this hospital was established on the English coast.

The hospital closed in 1952; the collections of its museum were sold, and the coat found its way back to Canada, where it is now in a private collection.

No more is known of this coat’s history, but old Stokes may have sailed on one of the ships that annually provisioned the fur trading posts on James Bay. That is what the coat seems to tell us; it is reminiscent of the painted skin coats formerly used by the Natives inhabiting the boreal forests and tundra of northeastern Canada. More precisely, the cut of this coat and the layout of the painted patterns are similar to the coats of the Innu (formerly called Naskapi) of Labrador-Quebec, whereas the painted design elements are reminiscent of those used on the early coats of the Cree-speaking people in northern Ontario. Apparently, this coat was made by one of the bands influenced by several traditions who came to trade at Rupert House in the James Bay region of Quebec in summertime. Presumably, the coat was made in the 1840s. It is fascinating to realize that such beautiful garments were fashionable in the Canadian wilderness before that traditional art succumbed to the lure of modern imports after first contact with European traders in the 17th century.

The Native population of these northern regions consisted of many independent nomadic bands, supporting themselves by hunting and fishing. Great herds of caribou provided the main source of food and clothing; large flocks of migrating waterfowl and fish were welcome supplements. Luxuries were few, but time was found for decorating the skin clothing, and even the most mundane tools and utensils. This creative urge was intrinsically related to a religious worldview, pervading all aspects of daily life.

The close bond believed to exist between human beings and wild game has been explained by elderly Native people in terms of a love relationship. The caribou spirits were honoured and pleased when the symbolic designs given by them in dreams were used to decorate their
skins, made into the hunters’ garments. In response the caribou were willing to give themselves to the hunters. Thus it is evident that this art had a magical quality. Hunting was a sacred occupation, and the painted skin garments of the hunter could be considered as ritual vestments. In her splendid publication on this subject, To Please the Caribou (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992), Dorothy Burnham restricted herself to the painted skin coats, but the leggings, moccasins, and mittens of the hunter were also beautifully painted.

The caribou hides were prepared by the women in a laborious process of cleaning, scraping, rubbing with raw caribou brain and liver, washing, stretching, and bleaching them in the sun and freezing wind. The soft skin of traditional Native garments testifies to the unsurpassed quality of these tanning methods. The best skins were selected for making garments and those that were severely marked with the scars made by the swarms of warble flies in summer were discarded. Caribou sinew was dried, shredded, and rolled into a strong sewing thread.

The cutting and sewing of skin clothing included the man’s coat for the summer hunt, and another one with fur turned inside for the winter. They were believed to retain their magical power for only one hunting season, requiring the annual production of two painted outfits. The time-consuming sewing and intricate painting of these garments promoted the frequency of polygamous marriages. Recognized for her artistic talent one of the hunter’s wives could be released from cooking, child care, snaring rabbits, gathering berries, chopping firewood, and the tanning of skins in order to construct and paint the garments that would ensure her husband’s success in providing their main source of food.

The worn coats of the past year often found eager buyers at the trading posts. The James Bay traders called these skin coats “tockies,” an abbreviation of the Cree term miskotokay for coat or dress. From the beginning of the fur trade the purchase of souvenirs had been a sideline for some traders who were aware of the European market for exotic curiosities. It is perhaps ironic to realize that coats had once been exotic and prestigious novelties for the Natives themselves. Northern Natives visiting Quebec City in the 1630s were described as wearing painted robes. The earliest coats that have survived date probably from about 1700. The basic feature of a coat may have been adopted when the Natives cut open the front of their long skin parkas, creating the long straight coats that survived among the James Bay Cree. However, the fitted waist and flaring lower skirt of the skin coats in Labrador-Quebec were undoubtedly copied from the cloth coats awarded by the French traders to successful Native trappers.

In order to create the flaring skirt, triangular gussets were inserted along the bottom parts of the northern coats. The garment illustrated here does not have these triangular inserts, but the traditional decoration of the inserts has been retained, probably owing to their symbolism of the mythical mountain residence of Atakwabe’o, the Lord of the Caribou. This adoption of symbolic design without the actual insertion of gussets supports attribution of this coat to a region between Labrador and James Bay.

A survey of the many painted coats illustrated by Dorothy Burnham reveals a sense of tradition underlying and interrelating these regional art styles. Parallel straight lines, symbolizing the trails of game and hunters, combined with triangles, predominate in the earlier examples, later enriched with curvilinear and floral elements. As early as 1646 it was noticed that the Native women of northern Quebec were experimenting with ornamental patterns of French origin in the painting of their skin garments. Some of the later paintings may have been inspired by the decorative designs of imported textiles. Most likely only a few of the main motifs on a coat originated from the hunter’s dreams, the rest coming from the creativity and regional conventions of the artist. Historical developments in Native art frequently show this creative adaptation of foreign influences, while maintaining a distinct and traditional identity.

From Spring/Summer 2015 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Theodore Brasser is an internationally recognized expert in the clothing and customs of North American Native Peoples.

Coat, painted caribou skin, length 133cm, Mistassini or East Main Cree, circa 1840
Courtesy of Donald Ellis Gallery