Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 13, 2001 - Issue 27



Rare Artifact Almost Went Out


With Trash


by Laura Behenna Helena Independent Record

The painted bison robe was found in a pile of refuse that had been set about for garbage collection about 10 years ago.

Kay Ingalls, an employee of the Broadwater County Museum in Townsend, Montana, saw the robe as she was passing by and asked permission to take it to the museum.

The family of John and Dorothy Deadmond had owned the robe for more than 100 years. It was faded and damaged, said Rose Flynn said, the museum’s director.

The museum sent the robe to Denver for some cleaning and repairs before it was put on display. But the story that the faded images might tell remained a mystery until recently.

Museum volunteer Troy Helmick invited Janis Bouma, a district archaeologist at the Forest Service’s Townsend Ranger District, to take a look at the robe. Bouma, who was studying American Indian rock art for the Forest Service, had been using digital photographic enhancement techniques to help identify and date images that had been painted and carved into rocks.

Helmick thought her expertise might help in finding out more information about the bison robe.

Bouma was so intrigued with the robe that she’s chosen it as the subject for her master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of Montana.

“It was a pretty amazing war record of some American Indian from the 1800s,” she said. “It really is an interesting story of somebody’s life.”

With the aid of a digital photo enhancement computer program, she’s been able to identify pictures of horses and warriors that are difficult to see with the unaided eye.

Bouma said the images in this type of art often tell a whole story about a warrior’s prowess in battle or in capturing horses for his tribe.

“Counting coup and stealing horses – those were ways you gained status in your culture,” she said. “These bison robes depicting your war record were worn for everyone to see.”

Sometimes, she added, Indian elders were paid commissions to paint their memories on bison robes or linen cloth. The Great Northern Railway commissioned many such art pieces, she said.

This particular robe is one of only a few existing that show a certain decoration on the bridle of a horse, Bouma said.

“It’s a ‘horse medicine’ bundle that was put on the halter or bridle to give the horse more strength when hunting buffalo, and more protection against the enemy” during battle, she said.

A 19th century historian named Clark Wissler, who had seen similar medicine bundles, described them as about 18 inches long, covered with red cloth and decorated with feathers and other objects, Bouma said.

The motif is common in Blackfeet rock art, she said, though rare on existing bison robes. She has seen only one other robe with a similar decoration at a museum in Calgary, Alberta.

“It actually looks like a big rake hanging underneath the horse’s bridle,” she said.

“In the enhanced image, you can see the feathers hanging from it. The rod itself is red, and the feathers are shown as bright yellow with a black tip. There’s a lot of detail in the artistry.”

The robe features other pictures depicting horse stealing, decorated guns, quivers, and gun-vs.-bow combat, she said.

“You really get to see a glimpse of what that culture was like, and the items that were used by both white and Indian cultures,” Bouma said.

Examining those details would have been impossible without the help of digital photographic enhancement, however. The painted images had become so faint over the years that some colors were no longer visible.

Using digital photo enhancement, Bouma said, “You can zoom in very close to the image and blow it up very large. You can see the pigment and make particular colors brighter.”

It’s been challenging to try to pinpoint the approximate date the robe was made, she said, adding, “Nobody really knows where it came from.”

By comparing the robe with rock art with similar designs that has been dated, she has narrowed the robe’s date to between about 1850 and 1890, and she expects to narrow that even further. She believes the robe originated in the Blackfeet tribe.

Digitally enhanced details also help to date the robe, she said.

“If there are guns or horses, we know it was after European contact in some form,” she said, adding that Europeans came to this region in the late 1700s.

Other pictorial details that help determine the date include designs of captured or traded guns, styles of soldiers’ costumes and shapes of horses’ hooves. This robe had no beadwork, which appeared only in later artwork, she said.

Bouma warned that researchers must take care not to introduce their own subjective bias when studying historical art, whether by digital enhancement or other methods.

“There’s a fine line between enhancing and editing an image,” she said.

Still, digital enhancement can offer valuable and fascinating information not accessible with other research tools, she said, and her work with enhanced images has piqued museum visitors’ interest in the bison robe.

“I’ve given several presentations about digital enhancement at the museum, and, when you could actually see the enhancements, people ran straight over to the robe to look closer,” she said.

“It’s a really neat piece of Montana history. I think it’s pretty great that we have something right in a local museum that you would (otherwise) have to travel to the Smithsonian to see.

“But it’s actually in Townsend, and, if not for a local volunteer who recognized the fact that it was indeed a bison robe that had some sort of paintings on it, it would not be here today. It would have been thrown out.”

Story Robes




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