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:
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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