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September/October 2001


Beauty, Honor, and Tradition:
The Legacy of
Plains Indian Shirts

Sans Arc Sioux war shirt (back), ca. 1870; hide, porcupine quills, glass beads, paint, hair, fabric.

Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York through November 4, is a dazzling tribute to the aesthetic and spiritual power of the decorated shirts worn by Great Plains-region Indian warriors of the 18th and 19th centuries. These splendidly quilled and beaded shirts were badges of honor earned by fighting the enemy in hand-to-hand combat or by sneaking into enemy camps to steal horses. In turn, the shirts bound their wearers to a strict code of conduct.

Like second skins, Plains Indian shirts were thought to partake of the physical, spiritual, and emotional power of their owners, who often became the political and spiritual leaders of their tribes. Made of tanned hide, the heavily fringed shirts were decorated with personal images and designs that symbolized the deeds and valor of their wearers. Men designed the shirts, but women made them, using porcupine quills, glass beads, paint, hair, fur, feathers, and plant fiber to ornament them.

Curated by George Horse Capture, a curator at the museum, and his son Joseph Horse Capture, an assistant curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the show features 48 Plains Indian shirts, dating from about 1820 to the 1990s, from the museum's collection of 400. Among the many tribes represented are Apache, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Lakota, Osage, Ponca, and Sioux. The show is organized by visual themes to illuminate the beauty and power of the shirts, as well as their history and what went into their making.

Mandan, Arikara, or Hidatsa shirt (front), ca. 1875; hide, paint, porcupine quills, dyed horsehair. Photos: Katherine Fogden.

Centuries ago Plains Indians had raised quillwork to the level of sophisticated art, and women of the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa tribes, now in central North Dakota, were the most prolific quillworkers. Flattened porcupine quills dyed in a stunning palette of colors, from delicate pinks and greens to vibrant yellows and magentas, were applied to shirts in geometric and figurative designs. Lacquer-smooth, these quilled strips were often "recycled" into new shirts when the originals wore out.

During the 19th century, after glass beads were introduced by white traders, quillwork was eclipsed. Several of the drop-dead-gorgeous shirts in the show are Crow, a tribe now located in south central Montana, which is famed for its striking use of colors and patterns. Crow beadwork, says Joseph Horse Capture, is so tightly stitched that it often appears to be glued to the surface.

The use of hair, though later replaced by fringes, was decorative and spiritual. Tribal peoples believe that hair, human and animal, contains a spirit. Owning a person's hair was both an honor and a responsibility; having a lock of an enemy's hair gave power over him. Hair used on the shirts was typically given by relatives or taken from defeated enemies or captured horses.

Their old way of life destroyed during the reservation era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Plains Indians continued making war shirts, adapting materials and designs over the years. The tradition continues in regalia worn at powwows and in the touching shirts and jackets now made to celebrate academic, sports, and other achievements.

-- Jacqueline Ruyak

A 160-page color catalogue from the exhibition is available from the museum.

Jacqueline Ruyak writes from rural Pennsylvania and rural Japan.

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Sept/Oct 2001

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