Anne de Stecher, Jonathan Lainey & Sarah Nesbitt
Pitt Rivers Museum Saddlebag
This saddlebag is highly unusual, and to my knowledge no other example has come forward in the research to date. The basic motifs that make up its complex design system are characteristic of the motifs seen on Wendat black-dyed smoked moccasins from the late eighteenth century to the early 1830s. This would include the diamond motif filled with cross hatching, multi-lobbed motifs, spirals-double curves, filled circles, rows of wavy lines, and rows of fronds.
This is a tour de force of design, bringing these elements together in interconnected patterns. Particularly interesting is the design-within-a design, the white zigzag lines that are formed, running along the section that joins the two bags. In addition to the characteristic complex motifs, the shape of the saddlebag could also be an indicator of its provenance. Indeed, most recent studies on pre-1850 Wendat bags/pouches indicate that the rounded pouch form is specific to Wendat production.
Looking at this beautiful work in person, it was hard to imagine it as a functional saddlebag. The pocket openings were very tight, and the elaborate embroidery seemed impractical for a saddlebag which would be quickly worn out from use. It made sense then, when Anne de Stecher suggested that the saddlebag may have been part of Wendat commercial souvenir production, designed in particular for officers in the British garrison in Quebec. Given the small pocket openings, it is possible that this example could have been intended as a memento.
According to research, the British military officers stationed in Montreal kept horses, often brought over with them from Britain. Regular horse races were held and long rides into the countryside around Quebec City were a daily pastime. Prizes at the races were sometimes beaded or embroidered moccasins. Could this have been such a prize? It is a spectacular example of embroidery and it would have been a coveted award. This deduction is strongly possible considering that horses were part of Wendat culture and way of life, which supports this narrative of the saddlebag. The 1780s census records horses at Lorette and horse races were held there, in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Pitt Rivers Museum Moccasins
These beautifully worked moccasins, dating from the early decades of the nineteenth century, are a wonderful example of Wendat women’s artistry. Moosehair embroidery is a rare art form, the materials difficult to work with and the techniques requiring long practice to master. These artworks were greatly admired by European and Euro Canadian collectors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A velvety smoked black hide is characteristic of Wendat work. These moccasins also contain the same design repertoire as the PRM saddle bag, in the parallel rows of fronds, multi-lobed motifs, double curves, filled circles, and diamond and half-diamonds, which in this example are filled with parallel rows of oversewn lines rather than cross-hatching. This style dates from before the 1830s.
The fine pleats at the seam of the vamp insert are characteristic of this Wendat moccasin style. The band of motifs on the body of the moccasin below the cuff seam, however, is unusual. The vertical cuff is an echo of an early eighteenth-century eastern Great Lakes moccasin style, seen in the portraits of the four Iroquois sachems by Jan Verelst, of 1710, now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada.
Moccasins, pouches, and moosehair-embroidered birch bark objects of this period are among the best known souvenir arts traditions of the Eastern Great Lakes. Ruth Phillips’ Trading Identities (1998) offers a detailed description and analysis of this tradition. What is less well-known is the role the moccasins played in the Wendat community, worn by community members as part of traditional dress and as gifts to European and Euro Canadian dignitaries.
Today, artists such as Mme. Marie-Paule Gros-Louis of the Wendat nation of Wendake, Quebec practice this art form, and classes have been offered to pass on their expertise to young people in the community.
One of the questions that intrigued some workshop participants was the similarity of design motifs on the two pieces, and the history of intercultural exchange that might have contributed to this design tradition.
Anne de Stecher pointed out the complexity of this question. From the curvilinear motifs of metal artworks found at pre-contact Wendat sites, to layers of visual arts exchange, in North America between Indigenous nations and between Indigenous and settler communities, to design influences on Western European visual arts through trade and communication with Asia–– tracing the intercultural exchanges that produced these motifs is an extensive project. Jack Goody’s The Culture of Flowers (1993) is an excellent source in this discussion.