The Native American tribes that once called Illinois home painted deer and bison hides with stories and symbols that were important to their culture. Some of the best examples of this artistic tradition – four painted hide robes made sometime between 1680 and 1750 – are now in the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign history professor Robert Morrissey is working with an interdisciplinary group of scholars, tribal cultural experts and community members on a project that will reconnect the tribes with their tradition of hide painting and with the ceremonial robes in the Quai Branly Museum.
The three-year project, “Reclaiming Stories: (Re)connecting Indigenous Painted Hides to Communities through Collaborative Conversations,” is a collaboration between the U. of I., the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. It is funded by a Grand Research Challenge grant from Humanities Without Walls, a research consortium based at the U. of I.’s Humanities Research Institute and supported by the Mellon Foundation. The purpose of the grant is to support research partnerships with experts outside of academic institutions.
The four hide paintings are associated with the Illinois and Miami tribes and are part of a large collection of objects from the colonial period at the Paris museum, including painted hide bags and shirts. They include one of the most famous existing hide paintings from the 18th century – a robe featuring an iconic image of a thunderbird painted in shades of rust, gold and black.
“It is very well-known and one of the most celebrated pieces of Indigenous art from this period,” Morrissey said. “Plains Indians used hide paintings as a documentary medium, for depictions of battles and events. These are different. Their designs are abstract. Even if they don’t tell stories, they are very important documents of their history and culture.”
Members of the Miami and Peoria tribes have been reconnecting with many parts of their culture – including their language, ecological knowledge, artistic and cultural traditions – that had been dormant for many generations.
“That spirit of reawakening is very clearly a part of this project,” Morrissey said. “A big part of this project is to help the Miami and Peoria communities continue to revitalize their cultures in a hands-on way. It’s more than an academic study of the past.”