April 2010 Artifact of the Month

Willow Backrests

Crow, Great Plains

1999.1.33

Materials: Willow sticks, muslin, seed beads, tube beads, leather and string

Willow BackrestThe Crow, like many of the Great Plains tribes, were nomadic. They migrated regularly across the Yellowstone and Bighorn country in southern Montana and northern Wyoming in search of buffalo and other game. They call themselves the Absaroka, which means "the bird people" in their language.

Due to their lifestyle, their camps were never permanent. They preferred the tipi because the women could erect or disassemble it whenever necessary. It was essential that their furniture have the same functionality. Also, space inside the tipi was precious. None of it was wasted. Backrests, which could be rolled up for travel, were both small enough to use inside the confines of the tipi and manageable enough to carry from campsite to campsite.

Our backrests are constructed with willow rods and muslin cloth secured with string. A special feature of these backrests is the beaded headrests. Red, yellow, blue, and green beads create a simple rectangular design that is skillfully crafted. Yellow beads and leather border the headrests and green tube beads hang from leather thongs. These backrests hang from tripods and allow a person to recline on the ground.

As Native American tribes fought white settlement, the Crow sided with the United States Cavalry and served as scouts in the Indian wars of the late nineteenth century. They believed that once the United States had settled the frontier, they would reward the Crow for their services. In the end, they too were placed on reservations and treated no better than the other Native American tribes.