The Art of Plains Indian Shirts

Sans Arc Sioux war shirt. southwest art.
Sans Arc Sioux war shirt

Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts, an exhibit of 49 shirts organized by the National Museum of the American Indian and the Minnea-polis Institute of Arts, is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, through November 4. Following is an ex-cerpt from a catalog accompanying the ex-hibit by Joseph D. Horse Capture and George P. Horse Capture.

These spectacular shirts, proudly worn by our ancestors, are a bridge connecting us to the past. Earned through acts of bravery, decorated in honor of great deeds, reflecting the deepest spiritual beliefs of the people who made and wore them, they are the closest we are ever going to get to our forefathers.

These shirts also represent an important period in our history. Their changing materials and tailoring record the arrival of new influences on the Plains—from white traders carrying glass beads and woven cloth, to relocated tribes bringing Eastern Woodlands artistic traditions, to U.S. Army soldiers dressed in their own style of war shirt. Ironically, despite all the images of Indians—especially Plains Indians—in American popular culture, this history is not well known. Little about our way of life is.

Scholars estimate that when Columbus arrived on these shores, more than five million people were living in what is now the United States. Assaulted by soldiers and settlers, and ravaged by the diseases they carried, our population plummeted to only 250,000 by the early 1900s. Government and Christian schools sought to erase our beliefs. Forced on to reservations, our land taken away and way of life destroyed, we were no longer seen stereotypically as threats to European-Americans but rather as curiosities and aberrations, strangers in our own land.

Quilled Eastern Lakota hide shirt. southwest art.
Quilled Eastern Lakota hide shirt

As recently as 150 years ago, Plains Indian life followed the buffalo herds. Almost everything our people depended upon came from these wonderful, shaggy beasts. Their flesh provided food. Their hides provided clothing and shelter. Their dried bones became brushes; their horns—spoons; their hooves—bells and glue; their tendons—sinew used for sewing.

In the fall, the people would conduct massive hunts in which they obtained large amounts of meat. They sliced the meat and rinsed it with salt water and herbs, then smoked and dried it to eat in winter. When the snow began to fly, and grass on the prairies became scarce, the buffalo herds would separate into smaller groups, seeking the protected areas in the valleys by the rivers. There they would hunker down to survive the bitter winters. In spring, when the grass grew thick and tall on the Plains, the buffalo left the valleys behind and moved out onto the prairies. Massive herds of thousands of buffalo came together to breed and be nourished.

Although they hunted other animals as well, the Indian people fashioned the cycle of their year to match the buffalo’s. The tribes, too, broke up into smaller groups during the winter and sought protection in the valleys. In the spring, like the buffalo, these small groups would rejoin each other. Tribes would then have ceremonies and socialize.

Absaroke (Crow) beaded shirt with ermine hides. southwest art.
Absaroke (Crow) beaded shirt with ermine hides

Most everything in the Plains Indian world, from the tiny awl to the towering teepee, is decorated in some manner. Winter was a time for creating this utilitarian art, spring and summer, a time to show it off. On the Plains, the making of artwork was divided up by gender. Women made most of the clothing and household things and created abstract decorations, while men made religious objects and painted realistic designs.

Although petroglyphs carved at sites such as Writing-On-Stone, in southern Alberta, record Plains Indian figures wearing fringed war shirts and leggings, the shirt tradition in the northern Plains is not an ancient one. The explorer Maximilian, the artist George Catlin, the writer Alice Marriott, and other observers from the early part of the 19th century record that only a few Plains Indian men wore shirts. On his epic trip along the Missouri River from 1832 to 1834, Maximilian said of the Numakiki (Mandan) Indian people, “Even in the midst of winter the Mandan wore nothing on the upper part of their body.” The Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who accompanied Maximilian, recorded the likenesses of many northern Plains men; a vast majority of them are wrapped in robes, worn with the fur side in, while a few wear shirts covered with robes.

A painted robe collected by Lewis and Clark in 1803 or 1804 is well executed, indicating that the tradition had been in place for a long period of time. By the 1830s, as Bodmer’s watercolors show, decorative presentations on robes had become more detailed and realistic. Plains shirts probably evolved from painted robes, though the two were also used simultaneously.

Research of museum collections all over the world indicates that the tribes who commonly wore shirts are the Inunaina (Arapaho); Piegan; Blood; Pikuni or Siksika (Blackfeet); Plains Cree; Apsaalooke (Crow); Nakoda (Assiniboine); A’aninin (Gros Ventre); Minitari, Numakiki, and Sahnish (Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara); Tsethaset-as (Cheyenne); Teton Lakota; Sarci; and Wind River Shoshone. The tribes that less commonly used the shirt are the Plains Ojibwa, Chaticks Si Chaticks (Pawnee), Sisseton, and Yank-tonai. The Ponca, Omaha, and Iowa used shirts occasionally. People should use caution, however, in generalizing about shirts, especially when studying museum collections, as museums usually specialize in the spectacular rather than the average examples.

Buffalo hide is too thick and heavy to use for shirts, so shirt makers used the skins of other animals. Elk provides a large hide, and deerskin is suitable as well. Antelope are plentiful, but their hides are small and thin. The ideal hides came from the abundant mountain sheep, which ranged from the Rocky Mountains to the Missouri River and beyond. The fact that these sheep, living high in the mountains, were difficult to hunt without guns made their hides especially valuable.

The hide was saved when the animal was butchered. Horns could be carved and bent into spoons or vessels, but the hide was the main attraction. The best skins were large, lightweight, and porous. When tanned properly, a process utilizing the animal’s brains and liver, the hide became soft and supple. After scraping the inside of the hide clean, the tanner removed the hair as well. Often on the older, more classical shirts, an edge of hair was left on the bottom and the tail, too, was left intact. This narrow line of hair may have been left to strengthen that delicate thin edge. Now it is a way to identify older pieces, the so-called untailored shirt type.

The two hides were then placed, inside to inside, as if the deer were standing on its back legs. To form sleeves, each hide was cut in two, a bit behind the front legs, and folded and fitted on each side, leaving the bottom portion of the hide for the main body of the shirt. Thus, leg skins hung down from the bottom of the shirt as well as from the sleeves. When a shirt is made this way, you can see in it the original shape of the hides; the animal’s integrity is maintained in the shirt, and with it the animal’s power. Once the hides were in position, they were stitched together.

This early, classic form resembles a poncho, with the wearer’s head fitting through the hole and the shirt draping gracefully downward. Few, if any, tie straps were used under the arms or sides to hold the shirt together, allowing maximum flow and freedom.

As early as the 1830s, shirt makers began experimenting with new design ideas. The skin legs that had hung from the cuffs and hem, for example, were discarded and the sleeves and sides enclosed. Many aspects of Indian culture eroded under the continued onslaught of European-Americans, and shirt styles were no exception. The change was not abrupt, but rather it was gradual. Because the northern Plains were more remote than the southern Plains, certain traditions lasted longer there, but even so, eventually change did come.

Once a shirt was constructed, it could be decorated in several ways. Four strips of quillwork or beadwork could be attached to it: two extending over the shoulders and hanging midway down the back and the front; the other two attached to the sleeves, abutting the shoulder strips. The anthropologist Clark Wissler maintains that the placement of the strips depended upon the location of the seams, as they were meant to conceal them. Neck tabs or facings, both front and back, are also seen on Plains shirts. Some tribes preferred square-shaped tabs, while others employed pointed tabs or other shapes.

A shirt could also be filled with vivid color. Pictographic artwork, in particular, painted on tips and shields as well as robes and shirts, accommodated the warrior tradition. These paintings record the brave and successful exploits of individual men. On certain robes you can see early Plains artwork at its finest. Painting hides was a precise endeavor. The powdered pigments came from many sources: the earth, plants, and even animals. A pale red earth pigment could be found on the sides of cliffs in the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana. A deeper red came from caves near Helena, MT, and yellow from Northern Cheyenne country, buffalo gallstones, and wolf-moss. Pulverized coal could produce black. Red, yellow, and blue were the preferred hues. A wide variety of colors could be obtained from the countryside as the people became more familiar with nature’s bounty.

Carved buffalo bones of various shapes served as the brushes. The more porous sections of the hipbones carried a lot of paint and could be shaped into a fine blade that produced a thin line, or they could be left with a rounded edge that made a wider stroke. The end of a frayed willow could tint a wide area, and various lengths of willow served as measuring devices.

The inner membrane of a hide, when boiled, produced a type of glue or sizing, as did the juice of the cactus. When mixed with pigments, this sizing would bind them together, making bright and durable paint. Or the painter could apply pigment directly to the shirt, then brush sizing over it, like varnish, to seal it.

With everything ready, the artist dipped the bone brush into the paint. The artist began by carefully making an outline of the desired form, because once the pigments touched the surface of the hide, their colors were absorbed and became part of it. At this point there was no erasing a mistake. Soon the drawing took form. Each stroke had to be painted somewhat gradually, to blend the line made by the strokes before and after it. The paint-filled bone pressed the color into the soft, tanned skin rather than just covering its surface. Other colors applied between the painted outlines completed the work.

Painted robes were usually worn with the animal head on the left. As we now study the robes, we notice that the pictures usually flow in the same direction, from right to left. The scene depicted is usually of a battle in which the wearer and his tribe are victorious.

So in addition to looking attractive, painted robes are adventure books, recording the great accomplishments of tribal heroes. The pictographs on robes and shirts served as mnemonic devices within the oral tradition of the Plains tribes. They are a kind of visual language, which a shirt’s owner could consult to tell the story of his deeds and we can learn to read as well.

Porcupine quills were used in early decorations. The quills were washed to rid them of oil, then etched in a solution that left the surface irregular so the dye could take hold. The complex art of quillworking resembles a flat weave.

While working, the quillworker kept the quills in her mouth so the warm saliva could soften them. Two threads or pieces of sinew were used to sew parallel lines on the base material upon which the quills were folded. As the artist removed each quill from her mouth, she flattened it with her teeth. One end of the quill was then tucked under the sinew or thread, laid across the base material, and wrapped over the thread on the opposite side. When wrapped properly, the quills lay crossways forming a lane of color. The next row would go alongside. This simple method became complicated as more quills were added, and the end result is incredibly beautiful.

In the early 1800s, glass beads, usually manufactured in Venice, Italy, appeared on the Great Plains. These, too, were used to decorate shirt strips, eventually replacing quillwork. It is said that traders on ponies brought the first beads to the Plains, so they were called pony beads. They were fairly large, ranging up to an eighth of an inch in diameter. The first beads were primarily blue, red, black, and white; many tribes preferred the blue.

Sometime after 1840, seed beads made their way out to Indian country. Although they were smaller than pony beads, the Indian people preferred them for their wide variety of colors. These beads were easily obtained and adaptable to traditional quill patterns. There are two basic methods to apply beads: the applique stitch and the lazy stitch. The applique method usually involves two sinews or threads: one thread is strung with beads of the desired color and laid flat and sewn to the hide or cloth at close intervals with the second. In the lazy stitch, five or six beads are strung on a thread and the same thread is used to sew them to the material. The following rows are sewn parallel, like railroad ties. The rows will eventually bulge up forming a washboard pattern, adding texture to the surface. By selecting pleasing color schemes, great artwork is produced.

Creative Indian people decorated shirts in many different ways. But every time someone believes they have seen all such designs, another beautiful garment surfaces, revealing a completely new method. Studying these shirts is a rewarding adventure.

Featured in August 2001