Painted caribou-skin coat
Innu, or Montagnais-Naskapi, 18th century
From Labrador or Nouveau Québec, North America
The hunt for food at the end of summer and beginning of autumn was vital for the Innu's survival over the winter. It remains central to their culture today. Until very recently, this event of the annual cycle was commemorated with the mokushan ceremony, when these fabulous painted coats were worn.
They are decorated with personalized designs intended to propitiate the caribou spirits and ensure that the caribou migrated on time and in the right place for their hunt to succeed.
Like most North American skin clothing, women were responsible for the long laborious process of drying, scraping and softening the skins. The painted decoration was also women's work. The designs were applied with stamps carved of antler. Mineral and vegetal pigments were mixed in a base of grease from the roe of sucker fish to make the paint.
Overall, the men's drumming and dreaming the paths of the animals, combined with the women's ability to develop the esoteric symbols, created a dense series of meanings which were believed to attract the caribou.
The painted coats were used at the time of trading before the caribou hunt. After the patterns no longer possessed power, they would have been suitable for disposal by the shamans to fur-trading posts. From there, many came back to England, possibly as exotic gifts from a civil servant or soldier to his family. Around 150 of these coats survive today, many in British collections.
J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)