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Artifact of the Month – Bull Boat

Our artifact of the month for June comes from our International Small Craft Center exhibition and is a bull boat, ca 1939.

The bull boat (or sometimes bison boat) was named for the material that covers the framework. Traditionally women were the ones who built & used these boats for transport and communication between the villages on the Missouri River and its tributaries. A small paddle was then used to paddle in the direction desired, as shown in the photograph below.

Mandan Bull Boat, 1908
Edward Sheriff Curtis (American, 1868-1952)
Collection of Portland Art Museum, Portland
Bequest of Dr. Fae Heath Batten

This particular bull boat was built specifically for the museum in the 30’s when we were searching for boats to help round out our small craft collection. We hired Crows Heart of the Hidatsa Nation at Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, who had built these boats for others and was an expert at doing so. We managed to obtain a buffalo hide from Canada Packers Co. in Toronto and had it shipped to the reservation.

Photography by Tom Siegmund, from exhibition Stationary Voyages: the Boat in Photograph, 2007
Crows Heart

Crows Heart was born around 1858 and served as an informant for Alfred Bowers, an anthropologist studying the local tribes. In reminiscences captured by Bowers, Crows Heart tells stories of his life, including the first time he went hunting for eagles. Knowing that one person would have to suffer in order to achieve a good hunt, so he offered himself up and was tied to the edge of a cliff, hanging by sticks in his chest. The next morning he was cut down and the party had success in catching eagles. At the time he built our bull boat, Crows Heart was using this type of craft to get himself around as needed.

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