With an interest in the relationship between a number of indigenous groups and the animals they lived and travelled with, it makes sense to take a look at surviving objects that adorned the dogs of Canada’s northwest. These animals were a vital means of transportation and were commonly decorated for special events and to ferry officials across the region. I have often come across descriptions of dog tuppies in fur trade journals and in the images produced by observers like Peter Rindisbacher. But I had yet to see one in person. Acquired from the Church Missionary Society in 1932, Irene Beasley donated this dog harness to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1954. To better understand what I was looking at, I needed to draw on the expertise of both Judy Half and Cynthia Cooper to help me appreciate the purpose behind, and construction of, this particular object.
Katie: Before we start on the front, can we turn it over to have a look at the back?
Katie: Well, I don’t think this is a dog harness. There’s nothing that would attach it to a dog or support the load of a sleigh or cariole.
Judy: No, this would have been decorative. A dog would have been dressed in this harness when someone important was being transported by sled.
I don’t think it was used very often either. See here? If it had been, the hide would look worn and shiny in the light.
And look. You can see where different types of hide were sewn together to form the backing.
Katie: I don’t see any stitching on the back either. So the two panels of fabric would have been attached to these two assembled pieces of hide?
Judy: Yeah, that would make the most sense.
Katie: So the dog’s head would have gone through this thick loop at the wide end?
Judy: Yup. And that neckpiece would have been stuffed with goose or duck feathers.
Katie: You can even see some of the feathers through this little tear here.
Katie: What do you make of this strap across the middle here. Could it be some sort of homespun fabric?
Judy: (Chuckles) No, that’s a piece of flour sack that was added later for support.
Katie: Cynthia and I spent so much time wondering about that on the first day!
Harness turned to front
These motifs here?
Judy: These circular symbols look like rosettes and those black and red motifs look like beavers. This quillwork was coloured using natural dyes, which would have limited the number of colours they could use.
Katie: What about this fringe here? Could it be a local product?
Cynthia: No, I think it’s manufactured, but it’s hard to tell. Let’s bring over the dinoxcope to have a closer look.
Definitely manufactured. You can see that in the uniform weave. Likely commercially produced and purchased off a roll.
Katie: So a ready made fabric adorned with indigenous symbolism and techniques, placed on pieced together hide and fringed with a manufactured wool of some type. How fascinating!
Julie-Ann: Have either of you seen this? It’s a watercolour by Peter Rindisbacher that shows a dog tuppy in use ca. 1822/23. Andrew Bulger, the Governor of the Red River Colony at the time, is shown travelling by dog cariole with both an Indigenous and Metis guide. What makes it different from the harness here at the Pitt Rivers Museum is the elaborate decoration using bells and ribbons. Likely used to show Bulger’s importance in the region, those bells would have made a delightful chiming sound as the dogs ran through the snow.