Saturday, May 4, 2013

Artefact Focus: 18th Century Naskapi Man's Summer Hunting Coat

It's amazing how much you can tell about a person, a society or a culture from one piece of clothing. Very rarely does clothing 'speak' therefore it is up to the historian, the archaeologist and the museum curator to unravel the lost voices of dress that are bound up in the very fibres of which it consists.
'Letting clothes speak' is exactly the challenge that I set myself when in my third year of university I was asked to take a primary source of any kind and write a paper about it. The artefact I chose? A Naskapi Man's Hunting Coat from the 18th century.

Naskapi Man's Summer Hunting Coat, ca. 1785- 1800, Fenimore Art Museum

Little did I know at the time that very little is actually known about the Naskapi people who inhabited the Labrador Peninsula of what is now modern day Canada. Even in modern times very little research has been undertaken in studying this tribe, so letting the coat 'speak' in a context that is known so little about was quite difficult!

With the little resources I had I was able to uncover a lot of possibilities about the man who must have worn this coat and the tribe that he was from. To find out more read on!

‘The Real Savage’: Clothing, Trade and Cultural Resistance in the Labrador Peninsula
      Clothing whilst practical also serves many other functions: it can indicate wealth and status, individual style and personality, but more often than not, clothing is a cultural construct that holds symbolic and ethnic /religious significance.  In Native American History, small and large changes in clothing were a visual representation of the change that trade and social interactions with Europeans had on these societies.  This article will focus on the clothing of the Naskapi tribe of the Labrador Peninsula in Canada, and what changes (or lack thereof) in their clothing tells us about their interactions with Europeans.  With close reference to a Naskapi Man’s Hunting Coat from the eighteenth century (Figure 1), it can be established that the Naskapi had some, albeit limited, contact with European traders during and possibly before the eighteenth century.  But unlike their neighbours, the Montagnais, whose clothing changed dramatically throughout the period, the Naskapi were able to resist the influence of Europeans so much so that any clothing (and thus cultural influence) that was adopted by the tribe was simply reworked into its pre-existing historical and cultural consciousness.

Clothing, The Naskapi and Trade

      In 1733, Sir René Cartier wrote in a French trading document about a ‘Savage’ tribe to the North of the Labrador Peninsula stating that, “They have no canoes; and are not sparing of their peltries in trading. They wear caribou and beaver skins, and their children marten and lesser pelts.”[1]  Although a seemingly offhand and unimportant account, this was one of the first ever European descriptions of an encounter with the Naskapi tribe, and this is an image which would come to embody them up until the mid-twentieth century.  This article will deal with one of the most enduring images of the Naskapi peoples – their clothing, in particular a Naskapi hunting coat dated from the eighteenth century (figure. 1), which was made from tanned caribou hide, sinew thread and decorated in designs to please the spirits of the caribou during the hunt.  Over the years many of these coats have found their way into private collections and museums, however what is most interesting is that a few are based around European style (Figure 1 and 2).  This Naskapi coat in particular, according to the Fenimore Art Museum, is based on seventeenth century fashion which poses many questions regarding the Naskapi’s contact and possible trade with Europeans. [1.5]  
What becomes apparent from looking through records and literature on the Native tribes of Northern Canada is that the Naskapi had very little contact with European-Americans until the mid-nineteenth century.  Although the first mention of the Naskapi Tribe on record dates back to 1643 in the form of a borrowed Montagnais word, “Ounachkapioue[2], this record only acknowledges their known existence and it wasn’t until almost a hundred years later that first known contact with them is recorded.  This occurred firstly in a French trading document dated 1 September 1733 and then in a Richmond Fort/Hudson Trading company journal from June 1753 which affirms the idea that even well into the eighteenth century, Europeans had established little relations with the Naskapi despite attempts that had been made to do so:

Nashcopy Indians never comes to trade wth ye English or French but, traffics wth,
the other Indians, wch trads wth Both Nations & that a trade may be got wth ym in
Winter they being nearer, to us than any English or French settlement…”[3]

The description offered by this source has great relevance to the Naskapi Coat in question, as it may help account for how a member of the Naskapi tribe was able to make jacket of seventeenth-century European design if they were not exposed to Europeans until the mid-eighteenth century - as it indicates the possible existence of an inter-Indian trading network between neighbouring tribes with whom the Naskapi traded, which acted as a kind of ‘middle man’ between the Naskapi and Europeans[4].  It is known that at this time the Naskapi certainly traded with their neighbours the Montagnais, who by 1808 were described as having all the vices of whites and as dressing in “Canadian-Style.”[5]  They may have also had contact with Southern Canadian tribes from the Iroquois nations, who by this time has also adopted various types of European clothing, and from whom the Naskapi coat in Figure 2 was acquired.[6]  It is therefore possible that items of European clothing were gained by Naskapi tribal members through this inter-Indian trade and then reproduced using traditional materials.

     The finely made hunting coats and the descriptions of the Naskapi from this period also indicate the lack of contact and trade that they had with Europeans in this early period.  By the time that the coat in Figure 1 was made from traditional tanned caribou skin and sinew thread, most Native Americans had ceased to make their own clothing in leather it was more valuable when sold to Europeans in the expanding fur trade[7].  As Becker has stated in his work on trade and its effect on Native American clothing, “cloth trade goods were incorporated into native costumes from the earliest period of contact” and it is well documented that by as early as the 1640s tribes throughout Eastern America had ceased to make clothes from animal skin, with woollen goods replacing native-made skin garments.[8]  By the early nineteenth century, even the Naskapi’s closest neighbours had fallen to the influx of European-made goods and culture which was reflected in their clothing.  In a document from 1808, James McKenzie from the North West Company outlined the differences between these two tribes stating that: the Naskapi remained in sporadic contact, had not acquired the vices of Europeans and still dressed in Caribou-skin clothing, whilst their neighbour the Montagnais lived near Europeans, had acquired all their vices and dressed in the Canadian-style with cotton fabrics.[9] 

     Analysis of the paints used to make the intricate designs in Figure 1 also indicates a lack of trade and contact.  In research undertaken by Moffit, Sirois and Miller, historical information was gained about the availability of pigments during different periods of Naskapi history which allows, to some degree, interactions between these cultures to be tracked as European made pigments do appear in Naskapi coats and thus must have been acquired through some form of trade. To discuss the Hunting coat in Figure 1, when using knowledge of local and traded pigments that were available, it may be possible that this coat was made before European-made pigments were used readily by the Naskapi.  The colour scheme of the coat consists of red-browns, greens and yellows [10] - colours which were all derived from local substances such as haematite, yellow ochre and green copper-salts.[11]  European made pigments tended to be bright vermillion reds and blues.  It is possible that the bright patches of red seen on the coat’s gussets and well as in lines that border its motifs are vermillion, a European pigment which also appears on other Naskapi coats from the eighteenth century[12], indicating that the Naskapi must had some limited exposure to European trade during this time, as it is not until the nineteenth century, when European-Americans had established greater contact with the Naskapi that bright Prussian and Ultramarine blues start to appear in their leather clothing.[13]

The Naskapi and Cultural resistance
                “To me, the ideal incarnation of this image is the Naskapi clothed in a caribou-skin coat with borders
decorated in curvilinear motifs. This Naskapi is the product of our old fascination with the leather
clothes worn by the Indians: the symbol of the real Savage… it is inevitable that at this time, the Montagnais themselves feel closer to us than to this man.”[14]

     The Naskapi did have some contact with Europeans, but unlike their neighbouring tribe, the Montagnais, they were able to resist most changes in culture which was brought about by this exposure.  As Tranberg has stated, “because clothes are so eminently malleable, we shape them to construct our appearance”[15], thus clothing not only reflects personal identity, but it also reflects cultural identity.  With this idea in mind, it can be said that changes in clothing, whether small or dramatic, can indicate cultural change as well.  The minor and somewhat insignificant changes that appeared in Naskapi in the eighteenth century are, as discussed previously, a visual manifestation of the limited contact and thus cultural change that they had with Europeans.  It could be said however that this limited change may also have been a result of the Naskapi’s cultural resistance.  Unlike their neighbours the Montagnais and other Native American tribes such as Lenape of the Delaware Valley whose adoption of tailored matchcoats “represented significant changes in native lifestyle... [and] alteration in the fundamental idea of what it was to be Lenape[16], it seems that other tribes such as the Naskapi were able to resist this change and even used adopted European styles and paints to assert their own Native Identity in these coats.  In his article on the Anglo-Indian Cloth trade, Becker stated that although an overwhelming majority of Native groups on the east coast of American began to replace cotton with leather, many within these groups, “steadfastly held to their traditional ways and rejected most of the alien culture's offerings.[17]  They did this through adopting only certain parts of European influence, such as cotton cloth, and adapting it to their own cultural traditions and needs, as Becker states that some tribes were able to incorporate “major items of European produced culture into their traditional lifestyle without compromising their traditional systems of identity.” In some cases these European made materials, such as cloth, even came to provide them with valuable signifiers of native identity.[18]  In light of this, it is possible that the use of Caribou skin, sinew thread and Naskapi religious designs to create the European looking coat in Figure 1 might have been, intentionally or unintentionally, an outward sign of the Naskapi defiance to assimilate with European culture. It seems to many European-Americans that this may have been the case, with missionaries in the 1850s and 1860s stating that the Naskapi were easily identifiable, with “their dress matching their bearing” – in other words their dress reflected their ‘native’ and ‘savage’ culture and way of life.[19]  In modern thought, culture is now viewed processually as being created, or in this case maintained, through “agency, practise and performance.”[20] 
     Naskapi coats are a fascinating anthropological example of this, as they were not simply made to provide warmth and protection to the wearer, but they also held great religious significance.  The Naskapi, being a nomadic tribe who roamed the inner and somewhat isolated barrens of Labrador, relied on the migrating herds of caribou for food and other essential products for survival. Their ability to hunt and therefore sustain their livelihood was dependent on ability to appease the spirits of the caribou and their lord Katipenimitak with whom they resided in remote mountain ranges and were only released when they surrendered themselves to the hunter.  This appeasement of spirits was done through the coats that men wore on the hunt, coats which bore elaborate details and symbols painted onto the hide of past caribou who had given themselves up.  Thus these coats were an incredibly important part of Naskapi culture which they continued to assert in defiance of European influence up until the mid-twentieth century, which may account for the reasons why this intricate detailed caribou hide clothing continued to exist, even when the style and cut of the garment was changed.

     Surviving clothing of the Naskapi, such as the ‘Naskapi Man’s Hunting Coat’ in Figure 1 can tell the historian many things about trade and cultural persistence in the Labrador Peninsula.  Information gained from these coats sheds light on how the Naskapi, unlike their Montagnais neighbours, were able to resist European influence and trade for a considerable amount of time. However, small influences such as European clothing styles and pigments still made sporadic appearances in Naskapi artefacts in the eighteenth century, indicating the possibility of an inter-Indian trade network that existed outside the established European one at the time.  The Naskapi use of native materials such as caribou hide and sinew thread in this hunting coat indicates that they had not abandoned traditional lifestyles and had resisted the influence of cotton cloth that many other tribes adopted; and their use of native pigments and the slow incorporation of European-made colours into the tribal artwork of the coats allows historians to measure when and how quickly European influence came to the tribe.  Most importantly however, the seemingly odd mix of European and Naskapi style that is displayed in these coats exhibits the ways that some tribes were able to resist the influence of Europeans and actually use aspects of this alien influence a way that exerted their own cultural identity.

[1] Mailhot, José, ‘Beyond Everyone's Horizon Stand the Naskapi’, in Ethnohistory, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Autumn, 1986), p. 391
[2] Mailhot, ‘Beyond Everyone's Horizon Stand the Naskapi’, p. 390
[3] Mailhot, ‘Beyond Everyone's Horizon Stand the Naskapi’, pp. 393 - 391
[4] McManus, John D., An Economic Analysis of Indian Behavior in the North American Fur Trade, in The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 32, No. 1, (Mar., 1972), p. 42
[5] Mailhot, ‘Beyond Everyone's Horizon Stand the Naskapi’, pp. 393 - 398
[6] Brasser, T. J., A Coat to Please the Caribou, created February 2005, William Jamieson Tribal Art <>, viewed 7 May 2011
[7] Daily Life, created 2006, Teaching History Thru the Arts, hosted by Pricketts Fort <>, accessed 7 May 2011
[8] Becker, Marshall Joseph, ‘Matchcoats: Cultural Conservatism and Change
in One Aspect of Native American Clothing’ in Ethnohistory, Vol. 52, No. 4 (fall 2005), p. 728 - 732
[9] Masoson, Louis Rodrigue, ed., Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du NOrth-Ouest: recits de voyages, lettres et rapports inedis relatifs au Nord-Ouest canadien. 2 vol. (Quebec: A. Cote et Cie, 1889), p. 412
[10] As I have never seen this coat in person it is hard to discern from the picture the exact colours used. But if we take the picture to be an accurate representation of the colours on the jacket then these observations can be made.
[11] Moffatt, Elizabeth A., Sirois, Jane P., Miller Judi, ‘Analysis of the Paints on a Selection of Naskapi Artifacts in Ethnographic Collections’, in Studies in Conservation, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1997), p. 65
[12] Moffatt, Sirois, Miller, ‘Analysis of the Paints on a Selection of Naskapi Artifacts’, p. 68 – Table 1.
[13] Moffatt, Sirois, Miller, ‘Analysis of the Paints on a Selection of Naskapi Artifacts’, p. 68 – Table 2.
[14] Mailhot, ‘Beyond Everyone's Horizon Stand the Naskapi’, p. 411
[15] Tranberg, Karen, ‘The World in Dress: Anthropological Perspectives on Clothing, Fashion, and Culture’, in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 33 (2004), pp. 373
[16] Becker, ‘Matchcoats: Cultural Conservatism and Change in One Aspect of Native American Clothing’ p. 763
[17] Vaughan, Alden T., ‘From White Man to Redskin: Changing Anglo-American Perceptions of the American Indian’ in The American Historical Review, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Oct., 1982), p. 943
[18] Becker, ‘Matchcoats: Cultural Conservatism and Change in One Aspect of Native American Clothing’ p. 728
[19] Mailhot, ‘Beyond Everyone's Horizon Stand the Naskapi’, p. 402
[20] Tranberg, ‘The World in Dress: Anthropological Perspectives on Clothing, Fashion, and Culture’, p. 370


Figure 1 - Naskapi Man's Summer Hunting Coat, ca. 1785- 1800, Fenimore Art Museum

Figure 2 – Naskapi Hunting Coat, ca. 1783-1805. Acquired by Theophilus Yale at Saint Andre-Est on the Ottawa River in Quebec from an Iroquois tribe.  Houston Fine Art Museum.

Figure 3 – Naskapi Hunting Coat, collected by General Sir Gordon Drummond, 1813-1816. Tanned caribou skin, pigments of vermilion and washing blue. Canadian Museum of Civilisation.

(c) Sarah Bendall, 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment