1650 - 1830

 Plains Indians

Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac

Painted robes, between abstraction and figuration

Before the introduction of fabric clothing, imported by Europeans, the Indians wore tanned robes of deer, caribou and bison. The oldest dates from 1550. The musée du quai Branly has an exceptional collection of robes from the 18th century. According to the tradition of the Plains Indians (including the well-known Sioux, Cheyenne, Crows, Comanches and Pawnees), the women drew abstract geometric motifs while the men produced figurative pictograms. However, most of the robes contain both motifs; the meanings are often mysterious. 

At first sight, this drawing is purely abstract. It contains the characteristic elongated triangle, which refers to both the feather and the spear, and uses the traditional colours (black, red and ochre).

If we look more closely, we can distinguish a red circle accompanied by a small red triangle. We then recognise the eye and beak of the thunderbird and its two large outstretched wings. 

The thunderbird is a primordial totemic animal in the Indian culture. The elongated feathers emphasise its resemblance to lightning. The unusual positioning seems to show that it is descending from the sky onto its prey, or perhaps onto man?

This robe combines geometric motifs (in the centre) and figurative motifs (people and animals).

Here again, birds of prey are depicted. The Indians envy their speed and piercing, wide-ranging vision.

Among the insects, we can see a butterfly. It is one of the most popular insects; it occupies a key position in the visions and dreams of Indians, as a symbol of transformation, of self-awareness.

Two men, their bodies decorated with paintings, carried away by their dance, shake rattles and brandish calumets with feather pendants. This is the calumet dance practised by the Illinois Indians, which includes a mime illustrating a confrontation between the calumet and an armed warrior. The calumet is a sacred object, a bringer of peace and cohesion.

Some painted robes tell of warriors’ glorious battles, inciting their bravery. This one is read from right to left and depicts the exploits of two great Lakota warriors, in 14 episodes, with 60 figures.

Many warriors are on horseback. The horse first appeared in 1519 when the Spanish invaded Mexico, before riding northwards to colonise New Mexico. After the arrival of the horse, war became part of daily life on the plains. The tribes clashed on the hunting grounds; warriors launched raids to acquire horses and fought each other to win prestige and honour.

The Lakota peoples are represented with a round head and a topknot on the forehead. The Plains Indians always depict the human torso using the form of a long trapezoid with thin, black arms and long tapered legs.

This robe, although figurative, shows no sign of landscape elements. No mountains or trees that might represent a location. The scene has a timeless quality, which allows the storyteller to contextualise the action as he or she pleases.

After the arrival of the Europeans, the painted hides changed style, and then disappeared. This one uses both Indian and European imagery, as well as texts: it is the so-called robe of three villages.

At the top of the painted hide, we can see four European-style houses; a cross towers over their roofs. 

A battle is taking place at the bottom of the hide: naked warriors are defending a dozen conical huts from warriors dressed in loincloths.

A scalp is also visible on this hide. This traditional practice of war or revenge was intended to threaten the victim’s entry to eternal life. 

The sun and the moon are at the centre of this painted hide. Along with the earth, they are the primordial powers which also contribute to the symbolic power of the round form. The sun was especially celebrated during the sun dances, held once a year at the summer solstice for a period of eight days.

Credits: Story

Directrice du développement culturel — Hélène Fulgence
Conception de l'exposition en ligne — Cécile Renault, adjointe au directeur du développement culturel
Cette présentation a été réalisée à l'occasion de la présentation au musée du quai Branly de l'exposition Indiens des Plaines, du 8 avril au 20 juillet 2014  — Commissaire : Gaylord Torrence

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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