The Anishinaabe and eastern Plains clothing and ceremonial items acquired by Lieutenant Andrew Foster during his military service in North America represent one of a handful of 18th-century collections that have come down to us relatively intact and that can be documented to a specific region and time period. In their diversity, the items in the Foster collection speak eloquently of the mingling of many different nations in the central Great Lakes between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The leggings, shirt, trade-silver ornaments, otter-skin Midewiwin bag, and cradleboard with its porcupine-quilled ornaments are probably Anishinaabe, while the moccasins ornamented with loom-woven quillwork may have been made by a woman from the Huron–Wendat community living near Detroit. The pipestems, quiver, shield, shield cover, and crooked knife with a handle carved in the form of a horse are in the style of the eastern Sioux, while the powder horn, cartridge holder and belt, and two pairs of worn, undecorated moccasins would have been the gear of a frontier soldier.
Nearly all military officers and colonial officials who served in eastern North America during the mid-18th and early-19th centuries eagerly sought out finely crafted wares made for the curio market.1 This magnificent outfit suggests a different history. It most closely resembles an outfit presented to Lieutenant John Caldwell on the occasion of his adoption by Anishinaabeg in the Ohio Territory in 1780.2
Between 1763 and 1796, Foster’s regiment was posted to frontier forts at the Miami Rapids near Detroit and Michilimackinac, in the heart of the Great Lakes region.3 Family traditions hold that Foster was “taken prisoner by some Red Indians” and “made a chief.” 4 Similar romantic notions go back to the 18th century, but they may nevertheless have some basis in fact. Mrs. Simcoe, the wife of the first governor of Upper Canada, described Anishinaabeg she met “from near Lake Huron” around 1795 as wearing almost identical garments.5 Anishinaabe makers would have acquired the luxury goods used to make the outfit, in combination with traditional materials of hide, eagle feathers, and porcupine quills, either through the fur trade or as presents given by the European powers to seal alliances.
Although it is impossible to know exactly how Andrew Foster acquired his outfit, it seems likely that it was presented to him as a gift. In this way the ogimaag, or chiefs, of the Anishinaabeg signaled their ability to provide for their British allies, while simultaneously recognizing their important political status.6 Such gestures were an integral part of the practice of ritual adoption. Anishinaabe peoples recognized two categories of being—meyaagizid and inawemaagen, foreigner and relative.7 By accepting their gift, Foster would have recognized his kinship with the Anishinaabeg. Equally important, the status conveyed by the outfit would have identified Foster as a leader. Ritual adoption was designed to compel British officers to mobilize all of the power at their disposal to protect and serve the interests of their new relatives.
It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the adoption of British soldiers as a sign of political dependence. The Americans sent armed forces into the Ohio Valley twice in 1790 and 1791, intent on breaking up an alliance of Native peoples that included Great Lakes Indians such as Anishinaabeg and Huron–Wendat. Both expeditions ended in defeat for the American forces, adding strength to the Native alliance, but also raising the stakes for the U.S. government.8 During the late 18th century, the Anishinaabeg constituted a demographic majority in the Lake Superior region. The United States would be forced to come to terms with their power again when it lost posts at Detroit and Mackinac to warriors fighting as British allies in the War of 1812.
Anishinaabe diplomacy resulted in social relationships with diverse Native peoples—the Dakota at the edge of the Great Plains, the Cree peoples of the northern boreal forests and the coast of Hudson Bay, and the Huron–Wendat at Detroit and in the Ohio River Valley. No matter how Foster acquired his outfit, in their design and in combining material artifacts from other important Native peoples, these garments reflect the power and political aspirations of the Anishinaabeg.
—Ruth B. Phillips and Michael Witgen (Ojibwe)