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News / July 9, 2019

Extremely Rare Buffalo Robe Painted by Sitting Bull Returns to Saskatchewan

It’s the only such known robe in existence—and for 10 months, it will be in Regina at the MacKenzie Art Gallery
Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull), Buffalo Robe, ca. 1877–1881. Pigment on American bison hide. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 10117. Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull), Buffalo Robe, ca. 1877–1881. Pigment on American bison hide. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 10117.
Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull), Buffalo Robe, ca. 1877–1881. Pigment on American bison hide. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 10117. Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull), Buffalo Robe, ca. 1877–1881. Pigment on American bison hide. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 10117.

The only known buffalo robe painted by Sitting Bull has returned to Saskatchewan after decades in the United States.

On June 20, after at least 75 years away, the robe went on view for its first-ever public display in Canada at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. There, it’s part of the exhibition “Walking with Saskatchewan,” which will be up until April 2020.

“It’s the only known robe that he painted that’s [still] in existence,” says John Hampton, director of programs at the MacKenzie. “There was word of another one, and he gifted it to the pope—but the Vatican lost it.”

The legendary Hunkpapa Lakota chief and artist painted the robe between 1877 and 1881. At that time, Sitting Bull was seeking asylum from the United States government in the territory now known as Saskatchewan. While in Canada, he traded with local Gus Hedderich, and later gave Hedderich the robe. After Hedderich and his wife passed away, the robe was donated to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

“This era of Sitting Bull’s life is very much about borders and border crossing,” Hampton notes. “The Sioux people, which include the Hunkpapa Lakota, of which Sitting Bull was a chief, were people of the Great Plains. That territory encompassed all of the Dakotas, some of the Canadian Prairies, as well as a lot of the midwest and central United States. Sioux and other Plains Indians would have travelled very freely at that time—that border was relatively new when Sitting Bull crossed it.”

And while Sitting Bull sought asylum in Canada at the time, it’s key to understand that what he actually found here was quite different.

“He came up to Canada to have safety and distance [from persecution by the US government],” says Hampton of Sitting Bull. “But that was the time period of John A. Macdonald and the starvation of the plains. They were trying to flush out the Indigenous peoples in what is now Saskatchewan through forced starvation. They did the same thing to Sitting Bull…. It wasn’t a real sanctuary.”

In 2019, bringing the robe back to Saskatchewan as a loan from the State Historical Society of of North Dakota involved considerable effort.

That return project began in November 2018, when “Walking with Saskatchewan” guest curator Bruce Hugh Russell requested the robe be in the exhibition. (He had originally seen the robe on the cover of a Winter 2014 issue of American Indian Art Magazine.)

An exchange of more than 100 emails with US and Canadian customs officials ensued to make sure they had all the information they needed to clear the border crossing at Portal, North Dakota, and North Portal, Saskatchewan. After it became clear a private shipping company would be too costly, the curator and registrar at the State Historical Society of North Dakota offered to drive it up themselves, as well as drive it back in at the close of the exhibition next spring.

When the robe arrived at the MacKenzie, Lakota artist and knowledge keeper Wayne Goodwill was there. Goodwill is one of few people in Saskatchewan highly skilled in hide-painting traditions. Some of his own work is on view in “Walking with Saskatchewan.” Goodwill is also related to Sitting Bull by way of his great-great-grandfather.

“We invited Wayne in to welcome the robe on behalf of the Lakota people in Saskatchewan,” Hampton explains. “So he smudged the robe, and we put out a bowl for offerings—for people who wanted to make offerings to Sitting Bull.”

At the exhibition’s opening event, Wayne Goodwill and some of his family also “provided some key teachings about Sitting Bull and hide paintings, and interpretations of symbols on the hide,” says Hampton. The image on the robe is presumed to be a “self-portrait of Sitting Bull wearing his strong heart bonnet below a feathered sun that is flanked by two pipes on either side,” says a release.

“We’ve requested [Wayne Goodwill] do these teachings in Lakota and that we then translate them into English,” says Hampton. There are also plans to incorporate stories from the robe into the gallery’s educational courses this fall, including ones around video games.

Hampton emphasizes the importance of reflecting on the many dimensions of this robe, the life of the person who made it and the biases that person was facing.

“The regulations around the movement of cultural objects and the movement of bodies,” Hampton observes, “are somewhat intertwined.”

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor of white settler Canadian (Irish and Ashkenazi) descent. She is also news and special sections editor at Canadian Art and has written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. Sandals welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.