Warmth And Spirit: A Comanche Coat Returns Home
Around 1890, a Comanche woman living in the Great Plains created this parka for one of the tribe’s children. Made of thick, golden lynx fur, it provided crucial protection from the region’s winters, especially at the close of the 19th century, before electricity had spread to the Comanche reservation in Oklahoma Territory. Considering how many hours it would have taken to hunt, skin, dress, stretch, cure, scrape, tan and sew the animal’s pelt, the parka was not only a labor of love, but one of considerable time and technique.
But this parka wasn’t simply worn for warmth. Plains tribes like the Comanche revered certain animals for their unique abilities. The turtle, for example, drew admiration for its longevity. By wrapping a young boy or girl in a coat of lynx, Comanche elders hoped to imbue the child with the creature’s characteristic courage and stealth.
The parka, which was on view for the New York museum’s 2001 exhibition, “Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts,” will soon return to Oklahoma, where it was first collected by archaeologist Mark Raymond Harrington in 1909. The object was hand-selected from the museum’s collection by Phyllis Wahahrockah-Tasi (Comanche), executive director of the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, to be part of their upcoming exhibition, “All Things Comanche: A Numunuu Trilogy,” which opens in Lawton, Oklahoma February 28th.
Wahahrockah-Tasi first spotted the parka during a tour of the museum’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, where the vast majority of the museum’s 800,000 objects are stored, studied and preserved when not on loan to other museums or on display in New York or Washington. Wahahrockah-Tasi says the coat’s hood, which features actual, tufted lynx ears, reminds her of modern-day stocking caps worn by the community’s children today.
“It gives insight into how our people survived those cold, winter months, and also how we treasured our children back then as much as we do today.” Plus, she added, “This coat bucks the misconception that everything was made out of buffalo.”
For members of the Comanche nation, the tribal museum doesn’t simply represent history, it represents family. The upcoming exhibition, for example, includes an object that once belonged to Larry Saupitty, a Comanche Code Talker who stormed Normandy during World War II. He was also Phyllis’ late uncle.
“We are the originators, not the imitators,” Wahahrockah-Tasi says of the museum’s objects, many of which are family heirlooms personally donated or loaned to the museum by the community. “We are the heartbeat of the nation. We bring the real history and culture.”
— Molly Stephey is a senior writer for American Indian magazine and a public affairs producer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.