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Ceremonial robe

Innu ceremonial robe, attributed to Kowkachish (Manakanet), wife of Mestawapeo (Sam Rich)
ca. 1920
Labrador, Newfoundland, Canada
Caribou skin, paint
133 x 152 cm
Collected by Dr. Frank G. Speck

Life in the barrenlands of northern Quebec and Labrador could be precarious at times for Innu families dependent on the coming of the caribou. The tenuous relationship between human beings and the Animal Masters—the spiritual overlords of the animal world—was predicated on respect. Special care, indicative of the central importance of animals in the spiritual life of the Innu, was lavished on the making of ceremonial objects like this painted robe, which was made to please the Caribou Master and to insure good luck in the hunt. Similar robes were used by spiritual leaders to draw caribou to waiting hunters. Women were responsible for interpreting the dreams of their husbands and painting the designs on carefully prepared hides. Innu elders, by virtue of having killed and processed so many animals in their long lives, acquired special powers referred to in the complexity of the designs found on their caribou-skin robes.

Very few old ceremonial robes survive in museum collections. This robe is one of perhaps a dozen or so that were made between about 1926 and 1946 by several Mushuau Innu women for Richard White (d. 1950), an independent fur-trader and fox-farmer who lived near Nain, Labrador. Capitalizing on an impression that the Innu were among the least impacted northern hunting peoples, White befriended the anthropologist Frank Speck (1881–1950) the leading Algonquian and Iroquoian scholar of his day, who in turn sold the objects that White had acquired from the Innu to museums throughout the United States and Canada. According to an exhaustive study by Alika Podolinsky Webber, White–Speck ceremonial robes with a large central sun motif are the work of Kowkachish (Manakanet), the wife of Mestawapeo (Sam Rich), a miteu (shaman) who died about 1950.

—Stephen Loring, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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