Collected by Fred Blessing in Manitoba, Canada
Private Midwestern Collection
Acquired from the above
For a related example please see a robe in the collection of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada (No. AP-480). That blanket reportedly belonged to Mootie, a member of Chief Day Star's band, a Plains Cree group from Southern Alberta. Another closely related example identified as Plains Cree, Southern Saskatchewan, circa 1870, can be found in Donald Ellis Gallery Catalogue, 2003, p. 27.
There is strong evidence to suggest that this robe is associated with the pipe carrier and the "Oskitci," or sacred pipestem bundle. During the peak period of Plains Cree culture there were three to four of these bundles within each band. However, by 1933, the ceremony was no longer given and only one bundle remained on the Little Pine Reservation. See David G. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree, Canadian Plains Studies No. 9, University of Regina, 1979 for more information.
In Alanson Skinner's Political Organization of the Plains Cree, Anthropological Papers, vol. XI, part VI, American Museum of Natural History, 1914, he writes that there had been three pipes among the Cree but only two were now there as one had been sent to the Bloods to make peace.
When Donald Cadzow purchased one for the Museum of the American Indian in 1925, he felt it was one of the two mentioned by Skinner. Research by Paul Raczka amongst the Cree in the 1970s, however, revealed that one was among the Montana Cree and one, possibly two, were among the Saskatchewan Cree and that they were seeking a return of the one gifted to the Blood.
The main part of the bundle was a decorated stem, decorated with horsehair, a fan of eagle feathers, and occasionally with strips of ermine and or bead and quill work. Each stem was unique and each bundle contained specific items to that bundle as well as standard items associated with spiritual bundles such as sweet grass, tobacco etc.
While the stem was considered the most important part, there were auxiliary items that were also part of the of the bundle and contained spiritual power. Paul Kane in Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, London, 1859, gave some indication of these items: "The official insignia of the pipestem carrier are numerous, consisting of a highly ornamental skin tent...a bear's skin...a medicine rattle...and a wooden bowl...besides numerous small articles."
Donald Cadzow in Peace Pipe of the Prairie Cree, Indian Notes, vol. III, no. 2, Museum of the American Indian, 1926, also recorded that pipestem bearers "were required to equip themselves with appropriate regalia, such as elaborately decorated deerskin shirts and leggings."
Robes were a necessary article for every religious ceremony, as the participant must appear before the spirits, covered, in a humble manner. Both the Plains Cree and Blackfoot were well-known to use robes in pipe-related ceremonies, and the robes had specific iconography associated with them that related to tribal myths. It's also documented that traditional buffalo robes were replaced by cloth robes in the second half of the 19th century.
This robe, decorated with two men, each surmounted by a crescent moons might be a reference to the first human being and the round medallions a reference to hailstones. Unique items, such as this blanket of which only three are known, often raise more questions than answers but the artistic impact of this blanket is clear.
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