Exhibition preview: The Blackfoot Shirts Project, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, until September 1 2013
The detective work required to trace the trail spun by the Blackfoot shirts, a set of three eye-catching robes collected from a Canadian tribe in 1841, is an intricate business.
© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
One of them, for example, is decorated with hairlocks and layers of red paint, still bright after more than 150 years and still carrying the artist’s fingerprints on its lower section. The black stripes, say curators, are “coup marks” – each a record of a war deed in which an enemy was struck, scalped or killed.
Plenty of the mystery remains unsolved. The tail and some of the animal used to make the garment are still visible, but a darker layer of paint and thinned sections of the hide could indicate that it once hung somewhere, and the wrists and cuffs are too narrow for a man, suggesting they may have been resewn.
Elk hide, porcupine quills and natural dyes from plants and minerals were some of the materials used in their production. Bones were used as paintbrushes, and the depictions sometimes serve to illustrate times of change for the people, such as the guns and knives representing the increasing importance of trade goods to the Blackfoots.
In 2010, museum staff took them back to Canada, where hundreds of Blackfoot artists, ceremonialists, elders, teachers and students touched the shirts and discussed their resonance today – one of them, Alison Frank-Tailfeathers, called the project “a step closer to keeping our culture alive”. Observations by her fellow Blackfoots accompany the display.