7. The Painted Caribou-Skin Coat

Although the painted caribou skin coat has not continued forward in either it’s original state, or in one altered through time, as the aforementioned parka or toque are, I could not leave it out. This one is on exhibit at the ROM and I stare at it often.

Caribou Skin Coat, Innu
Quebec-Labrador Peninsula
Caribou skin, natural pigment
ca 1805

 

 

 

“Painted caribou skin coats are material manifestations of Innu respect for the caribou they hunted. The skin, paint and designs were sacred symbols of the essential relationship which existed between humans and animals. Embellished with designs acquired through dreams, the coat pleased the caribou spirit while the hunter received the power of the caribou. Although the painted designs were intrinsic to the Innu world view, the cut of the coat followed European fashion.”

Royal Ontario Museum description.

Originally I assumed, from my observation of this one coat, that it’s history was brief. Luckily, I was enamoured enough that after several years of just looking, I went on to research it further.

In the book “To Please The Caribou: Painted Caribou-Skin Coats Worn by the Naskapi, Montagnais, and Cree hunters of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula* author Dorothy K. Burnham, tells a very complete story of the the coat. (More on Dorothy later in 150 Plus).

Ms Burnham’s study of the coats was extensive, 27 coats from Canadian museums form the basis and are augmented by 33 more coats, from 17 different museums in 9 other countries, studied over a period of 30 years. The book, richly detailed with photos and diagrams, explains what she found and the learned information she applied to that, to give as complete a story as possible.

In brief (very brief), the period of their making and use lasted more than 2 centuries, from somewhere before 1700, the date of the earliest coat that still exists, until about 1930. They were created in an area hard to pinpoint, the animal and its follower being nomadic, but generally thought to be from north-eastern Canada, extending very approximately from the St. Lawrence River, north to Ungava Bay, and from James Bay and Hudson Bay on the west to the Atlantic coast on the east. The original coats were probably, with separate body and sleeves, cut to follow the lines of the animal skin from which it was made, and with the Europeans arrival, evolved to match the ongoing European coats changes over time. The painting on the earlier coats was more elaborate than those, although still quite detailed, which followed. A summer and winter coat were made for each year’s hunt as the Innu* people thought the magic imbued into the new coats only lasted through that year. The wife of the hunter made and painted the coat. She had the use of 22 acceptable elements in which she could illustrate the instructions the husband had seen in his dreams and that would guide him on the hunt. The magic, the dreams, the animal, the making and wearing of the coat and of the hunt, were all part of the Innu’s intricate spiritual and physical belief system.

*Innu- the modern name, given by First People themselves, from the Quebec-Labrador region; the Montagnais, Naskapi, the Naskapi-Montagnais, and the East Cree.

The following images are from the book:

Royal Ontario Museum
Toronto, Ontario
Man’s Painted Caribou-skin Coat
Montagnais-Naskapi,
Quebec-labrador
probably about 1805-1810

 

 

Royal Ontario Museum
Toronto, Ontario
Boy’s, or very small man’s
Painted Caribou-skin Coat
Montagnais-Nasakapi
Quebec
most likely 1765-1775
upper: Sleeve band at shoulder
lower: Back view

 

 

 

 

Canadian Ethnology Service
Canadian Museum of Civilization,
Hull-Ottawa
Men’s painted caribou-skin coat
Montagnais-Naskapi,
Quebec-Labrador
probably late 18th century

 

 

 

 

 

*To Please The Caribou
Painted Caribou-skin Coats Worn by the Naskapi, Montagnais, and Cree Hunters of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula
Dorothy K. Burnham
Royal Ontario Museum
1992
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
ISBN 0-88854-399-9 (bound)
ISBN 0-88854-396-4 (pbk.)