A Woman’s Work is Never Done

charles russell painting true west
Charles M. Russell’s Following the Buffalo Run (shown), circa 1894, foreshadows his affectionate tribute to Plains Indian women painted 17 years later, In the Wake of Buffalo Runners; $1.1 million. (All images courtesy C.M. Russell Museum Benefit Auction unless otherwise noted)

The Plains Indian women’s role in the buffalo hunt was no small thing. “Theirs was harder work than buffalo hunting,” explained John C. Ewers, in The Blackfeet.

“At the time of the ‘great fall hunt,’ there was no rest nor excuse for her. She must work at any and all hours,” wrote Col. Richard Irving Dodge, in his 1882 book, Our Wild Indians. “If the herds were moving, the success of the hunt might depend on the rapidity with which the women performed their work on a batch of dead buffalo. These animals spoil quickly if not disembowelled, and though the hunters tried to regulate the daily kill by the ability of squaws to ‘clean up’ after them, they could not, in the nature of things, always do so.”

charles m russell true west
Another tribute to women earned its place as the top Charles M. Russell artwork at this year’s Scottsdale Art Auction, held on April 8: the 1894 oil Indian Women Crossing Stream; $105,300.

The central matriarchal figure, who labors forward with her child on her back, all while managing her heavily laden travois, is Charles M. Russell’s circa 1894 testament to these hard and fast workers.  Following the Buffalo Run hammered down at $1.1 million, as the top lot at the C.M. Russell Museum’s benefit auction in Great Falls, Montana, on March 18.

Gerard Curtis Delano painting true west
Gerard Curtis Delano’s The Victors is a visually powerful scene of human exuberance, with the celebratory American Indian warriors almost jumping off the canvas; $350,000.

When hunting bands moved from one encampment to another, to follow the buffalo across open grasslands, the men traveled light, carrying only their weapons, ever ready to defend their families. The women shouldered the burden of transporting the family lodge, furnishings and utensils. The heaviest, the tipi, weighing an average 75 pounds, dragged on the A-shaped travois.

andy thomas painting true west
Andy Thomas’s Steamy Night at Madame Dumont’s Fort Benton, Montana portrays a violent night at a steamboat stop operated by a woman history remembers as “Madame Moustache;” $185,000.

When the time came to dress a buffalo hide, a woman had an arduous task in front of her. After removing the hide from the dead animal, she stretched it on the ground, hair side down, and drove lodge pegs through to hold it in place, as she hacked away tissue and fat with a sharp tool. After days of the sun curing and bleaching the hide, she scraped the inner surface to even it out. After rubbing the hide with an oily mixture of buffalo brains and liver, leaving it out in the sun to dry again, and finally softening the skin by rubbing it with a rough stone, the buffalo robe was ready for market.

Frank Tenney Johsnon true west
Frank Tenney Johnson painted Down Through the Canyon expressly for artist Norman Rockwell and wife Mary as a wedding gift; $110,000.

Russell’s equal treatment of men and women in his artwork resulted in this accomplished work that proves the adage true: “A woman’s work is never done.”

Jenness cortez painting true west
Jenness Cortez’s The Cowboy Artist acrylic positions C.M. Russell in front of his paintings, most notably 1899’s The Hold-Up; $110,000.

Related Posts

  • winter-of-beauty-by-amy-hale-auker

    WILLA-award-winning author Amy Hale Auker has been an essayist, until Winter of Beauty (Pen-L Publishing,…

  • Tracy Beach’s latest book, My Life as a Whore: The Biography of Madam Laura Evens,…

  • california trail days true west

    A roundup of events where you can experience the old west! ART SHOWS Windows to the…