Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Sha-kó-ka, Mint, a Pretty Girl" wears a brain tanned dress

Sha-kó-ka as painted by George Catlin 1832

Smithsonian American Art Museum

“A very pretty and modest girl,” George Catlin wrote, “twelve years of age, with grey hair! peculiar to the Mandans . . . There are very many, of both sexes, and of every age, from infancy to manhood and old age, with hair of a bright silvery grey; and in some instances almost perfectly white. This singular and eccentric appearance is much oftener seen among the women than it is with the men; for many of the latter who have it, seem ashamed of it, and artfully conceal it, by filling their hair with glue and black and red earth. The women, on the other hand, seem proud of it, and display it often in an almost incredible profusion, which spreads over their shoulders and falls as low as the knee. I have ascertained, on a careful enquiry, that about one in ten or twelve of the whole tribe are what the French call ‘cheveux gris,’ or greyhairs; and that this strange and unaccountable phenomenon is not the result of disease or habit; but that it is unquestionably a hereditary character which runs in families, and indicates no inequality in disposition or intellect. And by passing this hair through my hands, as I often have, I have found it uniformly to be as coarse and harsh as a horse’s mane; differing materially from the hair of other colours, which amongst the Mandans, is generally as fine and as soft as silk.” Catlin painted Sha-kó-ka at a Mandan village in 1832. (Catlin, Letters and Notes, vol. 1, no. 13, 1841, reprint 1973, and 1848 Catalogue, Catlin’s Indian Gallery, SAAM online exhibition)

The Two Hide Dress of the Upper Missouri

The Ancient Process of Brain Tanning Hides
from An Ojibwe Elder's Art and Stories

Imagining Head-Smashed-In:  Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains
Jack W. Brink
Athabasca University Press

"Animals too wounded to stand posed little danger and were likely dispatched with heavy stone clubs, made with grooved mauls tied on to long wooden handles.  These were swung hard against the front of the skull, smashing in the bones and exposing the brain cavity - not only to kill the wounded beasts, but also to allow access to the brain, an organ much desired for the subsequent chore of tanning the hides.  Skulls are poorly preserved at Head-Smashed-In and are also conspicuously rare, but other buffalo jumps on the northern Plains clearly show this pattern of smashing the skulls." (page 163)

"Exploring the central Plains in the early eighteen hundreds, Edwin James recorded the general method of tanning bison hide:
The hide is extended upon the ground; and with an instrument resembling an adze, used in the manner of our carpenters, the adherent portions of the dried flesh are removed, and the skin rendered much thinner and lighter than before.  The surface is then plastered over with the brains or liver of the animal, which have been carefully retained for the purpose, and the warm broth of meat is also poured over it.  The whole is then dried, after which it is again subjected to the action of the brains and broth, then stretched in a frame, and while still wet, scraped with pumice-stone, sharp stones, or hoes, until perfectly dry.  Should it not yet be sufficiently soft, it is subjected to friction, by pulling it backwards and forwards over a twisted sinew.  This generally terminates the operation." (page 226)

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