Rare painted robe
This one-of-a-kind pictographic robe offers a rare insight into Upper Missouri River tribal life. The other similar painted robe dating from the same time period is another Mandan pictographic robe collected by Lewis and Clark in 1805 and sent to President Thomas Jefferson. Both show early battles with many warriors afoot whereas by mid-1800 there were enough horses so warriors fought from horseback. Both era robes used subtle yellow and red ochres for coloring their subjects, whereas later artists used brighter trade colors of blue, green and vermillion.
Many societies existed long ago, such as the White Horse Owners, Owl, Beaver, Crow, Badger, Kit Fox and Brave Hearts. Each society had paraphernalia such as spears, bows, headdresses, pipes and war shirts which differed from another society. Societies competed with each other during warfare in demonstrating their bravery. This robe shows one of the Mandan societies, of which their chief was a member.
This recently-found robe is unique in the depiction of riders in an early style of "transparent" legs with rider's legs on the same side of a horse. Unique to this moose hide robe is its clever use of yellow discs, representing porcupine-quilled rosettes on war shirts, to identify its society members.
The Mandan robe shows the importance of warfare to protect the tribe, also a means to elevate a warrior's prestige. It was important to indicate in the drawings how many enemies on which "coup" had been counted. Touching or hitting an enemy showed more bravery than killing. A coup entitled the warrior to a feather for each enemy touched, so the drawings carefully show feathers on warriors to indicate number of brave acts. The feather was important to show the warrior had been in battle. It was so important that a boy could not court a girl without having a feather in his hair; otherwise he was a nobody. Lewis and Clark were told by a Mandan chief that war was necessary. The chief said, "Without war, how do we know who are our great warriors?"
The time this robe was drawn, the Mandan were the dominant tribe living along the Missouri River in today's North and South Dakota. The Sioux came in contact with the Mandan about 1750 and from them received their first horses. It is believed that this robe shows conflict with the Sioux who were known as "Poisonous Snakes". On the robe it is believed that warriors with dark triangles on their side refer to the pattern on rattlesnakes to represent Sioux fighters.
In fighting, warriors stripped down to almost nothing except for a breechclout, and some fought naked. However, for understanding, the artist shows war shirts to identify participants in battle. Those with a yellow circle near the top of their war shirts are society members whose exploits are shown. This moose robe shows most warriors with a red breechclout, but some are without a loincloth. The Lewis and Clark robe shows none of the warriors wearing breechcloths.
History of the Robe
With small figures shown very close to each other at the robe's bottom, it is obvious the society lacked space to show more events. Certainly all the exploits shown on this robe were painted during ceremonies over perhaps three to five years. Perhaps the society decided to begin another robe, but more likely the Mandan were suffering an outbreak of smallpox which killed 90% of their people along the Missouri River. If so, the purpose of their robe was over and this painted hide was sold to traders who came to buy tanned hides to send to St. Louis for lap robes. Such hides were covered with wool and sold during horse and buggy days to keep a traveler's knees and legs warm. Stitch marks of hand-sewing along the edges of this robe indicate it had been a lap robe. When not needed any longer, it was stored in a large trunk. About 1970 the trunk was sold as unclaimed baggage at auction in northern Illinois. The buyer kept the trunk and made a coffee table from it and gave the robe from inside to his grandchild. The wool covering was moth-eaten and it was noted that figures of people could be seen through its holes. After the cover was removed, it was discovered to be a painted robe and was shown to a collector who sold the robe at a gun show in Omaha. The buyer asked me to verify the robe, which I did after months of research.
This Mandan robe is supple, which is good reason it survived. Although the smell of smoke long left the robe, it has a reddish tint on the non-painted side, characteristic of being smoked. (More information about tanning and smoking is in my Brain-Tanning the Sioux Way book). If it had been stiff, it likely would have been discarded. The Lewis and Clark-collected robe is rigid and cannot be rolled up. Two days were spent in studying it at the Peabody Museum in Boston. The Monticello Association asked me to replicate the pictographic Mandan robe for the Bicentennial Celebration of the Lewis and Clark trip. This experience gained me understanding and to interpret the Mandan robe. Of interest on the robe are elliptical holes from skinning, which of necessity were sewn shut with a piece of hide before smoking. Today remnant sinew threads indicate these holes, originally had been closed with small hide patches.
Interpretation of Mandan Society Warriors
02 Mandan riding a pad saddle, holding pipe bag as a war leader, shoots at enemy Sioux.
03 Two Sioux, one with a bow and another with a spear, are injured by Mandan on horseback.
04 Medicine man with green war shirt and horn headdress has hands raised in supplication.
05 Enemy with bird headdress and holding spear is hit by Mandan spear and ball war club.
06 Mandan on horseback strikes spear at enemy holding a bow.
07 Sioux shoots arrow at Mandan who then hits him with a rifle.
08 Big Mandan symbolically shows this robe will show bravery of a Mandan society.
09 Mandan donning horn headdress rides special horse with war bonnet
10 Medicine man points to medicine horse with headdress.
11 Mandan with war bonnet, who is a sash wearer, hits with a spear an enemy with painted green shield.
12 Spear runs through enemy by Dog Soldier Mandan wearing many feathers.
13 Dancing Mandan chief wearing war paint celebrates with rattle and trade tomahawk.
14 Mandan strikes with spear an enemy with painted yellow shield and ball war club.
15 Honoring of chief wearing a long disc headdress and holding his decorated spear and war shield.
16 Mandan captures and ties an enemy.
17 Mandan with society shield painted half-yellow fights with enemy wielding a spear.
18 Mandan with rifle and powder horn fights an enemy attacking with trade tomahawk.
19. Mounted Mandan with horn headdress holding rifle and spear fights three Sioux.
20. Three Sioux with bows and arrows flee Mandan on horseback.
21. Medicine man with green war shirt, shown also elsewhere, holds rifle up in victory.
22. Enemy with green shield and red center is confronted by Mandan with knife.
23. Three enemies are hit with arrows fired by Mandan medicine man.
24. Medicine man with split horn bonnet and leggings marked with honor marks defeated three enemies.
25. Sioux with bow is hit on head with Mandan's bow to count coup without killing him.
26. Mandan wearing many feathers fires six arrows at three Sioux attackers.
27. An arrow knocks down two Sioux and another strikes his horse carrying a decorated shield.
28. Another arrow hits a Sioux with long hair holding a rifle.
29. Mandan dance in celebration for their victory.
30. Mandan with split horn bonnet counts coup on Sioux wearing war bonnet with trailer who has a bow.
31. Chief with his half-yellow shield and gun captures a man wearing a dress as a transvestite
32. Three enemies with bows and another with a tomahawk are shot with bullets.
33. Riding a horse with decorated headpiece a Mandan Dog shot four enemies.
34. Chief (#15) with full headdress and disc trailer, holding a rifle, captured a horse.
35. Traveling from afar, three enemies have been captured and tied by a Mandan with bow and spear.
36. Chief ran toward an enemy and shot an arrow into him
37. Chief (#15) holding his shield and rifle is honored for valor.
38. Mandan with split horn bonnet and holding a rifle rides toward the enemy to fight.
39. Enemy using a tomahawk is speared and another with a rifle is hit with a tomahawk by a Mandan.
40. Mandan with long hair uses a knife against an enemy with a tomahawk and a feather trailer. 41. Dog Soldier named "Buffalo" with bow/arrows on the ground face three guns firing at him.
42. Two enemy are running away from the battle.
43. Running Mandan is headed to aid Dog Soldier while enemy with knife fights buffalo headdress man.
44. Riding enemy, whose horse has feathers in its mane and scalp on bridle, attacks Mandan (#61)
45. Enemy with bird in his hair and feather trailer shoots rifle at Mandan (#61)
46. Three injured Mandan run a long distance to use two bows and tomahawk against enemy (#44).
47. Mandan spears enemy donned with a horn headdress.
48. Enemy wearing a bow/quiver shot an arrow at Mandan (#53) and was hit by a Mandan's tomahawk 49. The chief (#15) with half-yellow shield strikes a fleeing enemy, who lost his gun.
50. Celebration showing medicine man holding a large yellow shield representing the society.
51. Shown are two society lances and four bows near a large fire throwing sparks and producing smoke.
52. Masked man with buffalo horn rattle holding buffalo shield is dancing to call out for buffalo to return.
53. Mandan on horseback shot at enemy, but missed, then another Mandan killed him with a tomahawk.
54. Dog Soldier with elaborate headdress shot two enemy.
55. Mandan with yellow shield shot rifle and hit enemy with spear who ran a long distance to reach him.
56. Hole from skinning which had been plugged with sinew remnants visible.
57. Last figure is a leader holding a feather spear of the Brave Hearts with his red shield.
58. Upper torsos of three men painted yellow, who are witnesses to deeds drawn on the first rows.
59. Upper torsos of three yellow men, who were present when this robe was first painted.
60. Torsos of three yellow men who witnessed deeds drawn on the middle area.
61. Three men, with shields above to identify their names, shot with bow/arrows and hawk at (#44, 45).
62. Faint figure of a man with no shown action.
63. Two tipis in village where society members have meetings and ceremonies.
64. Four rifles firing at Sash Wearer (#41), whose sash is staked, to "fight to the death".
1800 - 1810 Mandan Pictographic Robe on smoked moose hide
Numbered events on front half of Mandan robe
More information on this subject can be found in Franz Brown’s forthcoming illustrative book, The Mandan Warriors Society Robe.