the language of the robe -- 1/29/21

Today's selection -- from Language of the Robe: American Indian Trade Blankets by Robert W. Kapoun with Charles J. Lohrmann. The American Indian trade blanket has become synonymous with native cultures in the U.S. While an important symbol to the outside world, it plays a significant role in demonstrating emotions and status:

"Over the many generations since Native Americans began trade with Europeans, few items have become so closely identified with the Indigenous American cultures -- particularly those of the plains and southwest -- as has the American Indian trade blanket. In fact, because the colorful wearing robe or trade blanket has become such an integral part of the cultures of many American Indian tribes, trade blankets are almost universally known as 'Indian Blankets'. Even though the term 'Indian Blanket' is misleading in the sense that the origin of the trade blanket itself was from outside the native cultures, the term is appropriate because the trade blanket has become almost completely recontextualized in terms of native cultures. ... 

"Once the trade blanket was more widely accepted, it was also described by the word robe, a term previously used only for animal hide 'blankets.' Robe was also used later by the major trade blanket manufacturers to describe the wearing blankets sold to the non-Indian market. No doubt, robe was a more successful advertising term as it evokes a more poetic image, but it is also more accurate, as it implies the blanket was to be draped over the shoulders or wrapped around a figure, rather than just used as bedding. ...

"On first consideration, the obvious importance of the trade blanket is the practical -- the robe provides warmth and protection against the elements. Before the introduction of the commercially produced blanket through trade with Europeans, the creation of the robe varied with the natural materials available to each particular tribe. As the original material for the blanket or robe varied, so the specific cultural importance. But the robe -- whether fur, bark, feather, or woolen -- has long held an important place in the lifeways of many Native American people. 

"European accounts of the use of robes by Indian people date back to the earliest contact between the two worlds. In 1673, when French explorers Louis Joliet and Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette traveled along the Mississippi River, they first encountered bison and noted that 'the body is covered with a heavy coat of curly hair ... it falls off  in the summer, and the skin becomes soft as velvet. At that season, the savages use the hides for making fine robes, which they paint in various colors.' ... 

"We now know that the robe is imbued with more than just practical significance; it has become a standard of exchange, a measure of wealth and standing, even a medium to express emotion and meaning. While superficial observation might see the robe as a simple garment, it has been an integral part of the dynamic Native American life and culture for centuries. As Luther Standing Bear explains in his autobiography, the robe is 'worn with the significance of language.'

"As Patrick Houlihan points out, the twenty-seventh annual report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), published in 1905, includes an extensive explanation of 'the language of the robe' ... This account explains that 'while each man wore his robe in a manner characteristic of the individual, either gracefully or otherwise, yet there was a typical way of expressing certain purposes or feelings by the adjustment of the robe that was persistent and easily recognizable.' The report goes on to explain the specific ways in which both men and women gathered the robe about them or draped it over their shoulders to convey emotions and moods. One example depicts 'a young man walking. The robe is thrown loosely over the left shoulder and gathered on the left arm. The right arm is free and the limbs unencumbered. The folds of the garment add grace and dignity to the figure.' ...

"Another use of the robe, the Bureau of Ethnology report explains, depicts the pose of the man who stands watching some transaction of public interest. His attitude is quiet and firm, the robe is definitely adjusted, ... but there is no indecision in the mind of the wearer -- he will be ready for speech or act when the opportune moment arrives. 

"Perhaps the most striking illustration of this expressive use of the garment was its adjustment in the case of anger. Stung by the sudden wrong or injury, the man grasps the edges of his robe and hastily draws it up over his head, thus withdrawing from observation. ...

"By studying the language of the robe, the language of the American Indian trade blanket, we can understand the power of a culture recasting an object in a new way. This language explains a living tradition among the Native American people. Within the tribe or pueblo, the blanket is a statement of an individual's bond to the older, traditional ways, to roots that run deep. It's also a statement of personal identity. The blanket continues as a standard of exchange; and as a gift, the blanket is an important acknowledgement of friendship, gratitude, and respect. The language of the robe is a language that allows an eloquence unknown to the spoken word."



Robert W. Kapoun with Charles J. Lohrmann


Language of the Robe: American Indian Trade Blankets


Peregrine Smith Books


Copyright 1992 by Robert W. Kapoun


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