Hayter Reed (1849 – 1936) was one of the most influential architects and enforcers of iniquitous colonial policies affecting the Indigenous people of Western Canada. From Ontario, Reed began his career with the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) in 1881 as Agent at Battleford, and was Indian Commissioner in Regina (1888 - 1893) and then deputy superintendent general of the DIA in Ottawa (1893 - 1897). He devised and enforced some of the most notorious policies and programs including peasant farming, the pass system and other measures to contain and control Indigenous people.1 Reed was dismissed from the DIA in 1897 following the election of the Wilfrid Laurier Liberals.
New to many of us was that Reed collected First Nations objects. He donated his “Indian relics” in 1931 to McGill and they are now at the McCord Museum. There are over 100 objects in this collection including shirts, dresses, moccasins, leggings, baskets, bows, snowshoes, bowls, model canoes and more. They are predominantly Northern Plains in origin but are also from the Northwest Coast, Eastern Woodlands and Maritimes. How did Reed obtain this large and important collection? It may have been gathered over his many years in Indian Affairs, but his collecting was also associated with the Canadian exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair at Chicago. Here there was a “special exhibit” of the DIA with “living representatives,” and Reed was assigned to provide them with “their equipment representing their wild condition.”
We were particularly interested in a dress identified by Kate Reed (Hayter Reed’s granddaughter) as having belonged to the wife of Kainai leader and Treaty Chief Red Crow. A list of items sent by the DIA to the World’s Fair, and included among the Hayter Reed papers at the McCord, seems to support this attribution: it mentions a dress “From Mrs. Red Crow”. A closer look into the documents, however, suggested a different picture. We concluded that while the dress in the Reed collection was likely on display in Chicago, it is probably not Mrs. Red Crow’s. McCord Museum staff are reaching out to other museums with collections associated with the 1893 World’s Fair to see whether they hold Mrs. Red Crow’s dress. This was a good lesson in the complexities and challenges faced by curators and historians in trying to identify the artists who may have produced objects, and in being cautious about attributions made by family members.
We do know that this dress was worn by a Miss Bloomfield in 1896 at the Historical Fancy Dress Ball at Rideau Hall organized by Lady Aberdeen. According to Cynthia Cooper’s research several guests wore outfits that Reed later donated to the McCord as part of his collection.2 Reed organized an impromptu set at the ball, in which he played the Iroquoian leader Donnacona (although dressed in Plains clothing). In the 1890s when Reed acquired this dress he and his associates at the DIA were doing their utmost to destroy First Nations ceremonial life.
We also can know something about the dress by taking a closer look at it and thinking about how it was made and what its design conveys. The dress is made from the hides of three animals–one each for the skirt front and back, and a third for the bodice.3 A small triangular piece of hide is sewn at the centre, where the bodice meets the body of the dress. It represents the tail of the deer and gives this style of garment the name by which it is widely known, “deer tail dress”. The Blackfoot name for this style of dress is Aawaka’siisoka’sim. The connection with the animal is reinforced in the dress’s design. The animal’s form is evoked in the curved bands of beadwork that flow across the bodice, dipping down beneath the tail, and by the minimal tailoring. These features emphasize the animal’s presence, honouring the deer who’ve given their lives so that people might eat and a woman might dress herself in warmth and beauty.
By the late 1880s, imported fabrics and clothing had replaced hide garments for everyday wear. Animal hides were difficult to come by: hunting had been sharply curtailed due in large part to the pass system that Reed had imposed. But when possible, Blackfoot women still made and wore hide dresses to ceremonies.
On various occasion, Blackfoot knowledge holders Herman Yellow Old Woman, Alvine Mountain Horse, and the late Allan Pard shared their knowledge and insights with Susan about deer tail dresses, and the beadwork pattern across the bodice which is called Crow Spreading His Wings.4 It relates to the story of how Crow Eagle, the Cold Maker, defeated Thunderbird. Thunderbird used to live in Crow’s Nest Mountain in southern Alberta. When he went south for the winter, Crow Eagle would move in. One spring, Thunderbird came back early one spring, he found Crow Eagle there. Thunderbird challenged Crow, opening his eyes and sending out lightning bolts. Crow retaliated by flapping his wings to make the cold come back. Thunderbird started to shiver, and said, “pity me”. Crow did, and stopped the cold. Thunderbird left and made his home at Chief Mountain, and Crow Eagle claimed Crow’s Nest Mountain for his home. When you see Crow perched, flapping his wings, he’s saying that cold weather or a storm is coming. The design evokes Crow with his outstretched wings, gliding on the air. Distinguished women would wear a dress with this design to ceremonies connected with Thunderbird, Crow, and the changing seasons.
It is very troubling to think of the dress being worn at a costume ball in Ottawa given this larger picture. We also wonder about its inclusion in a “living display at the World’s Fair. In these contexts, much of its specific cultural significance must surely have been lost.5
1A peasant farming policy, in place from 1889 – 1897 on select reserves primarily in treaties 4, 6 and 7, decreed that reserve famers were to severely limit their farming to one or two acres of root crops, and to use rudimentary implements that could be hand-made. The pass system, introduced on prairie reserves after 1885, was devised to control and monitor the movements of First Nation people who were not to leave their reserves without a pass from the farm instructor or agent. See Sarah Carter, Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy 1990.
2Cynthia Cooper, Magnificent Entertainments; Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General 1876 – 1898 Fredericton N.B. and Hull PQ: Goose Lane Editions and Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1997. Thanks to Cynthia and to Guislaine Lemay at the McCord.
3Older deer tail dresses, dating to mid-century, were usually made from two hides only. The animals’ front legs and neck formed the dresses’ lower edge, and their rear legs the sleeves. Each animal’s rear end was folded back at the neckline to form the bodice, with the deer’s tail sitting at the centre. By the late 1800s, when Mrs. Red Crow’s dress was made, the approach to construction had changed. With the bodice now made from a third piece of hide, the actual tail no longer sat at the centre of the bodice. However, the look was retained by sewing an imitation tail or, as in this case, a tail-shaped wedge of hide, to the same spot.
4Cynthia Cooper, Magnificent Entertainments; Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General 1876 – 1898 Fredericton N.B. and Hull PQ: Goose Lane Editions and Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1997. Thanks to Cynthia and to Guislaine Lemay at the McCord.
5With respectful thanks to Herman Yellow Old Woman, Alvine Mountain Horse, and the late Allan Pard, who shared their knowledge and insights about Crow Spreading His Wings and deer tail dresses.