Updated: May 7
When I was a child growing up in Omaha, our stormy summer skies were full of old stories, like those of lost cattle drives, immortalized in that song, Ghost Riders in the Sky (yippee ay yoh, yippee ay yay). When the sky would turn red and the storm cloud winds would bring tiny grains of sand all the way from the Sand Hills in the panhandle, I'd turn to the west to feel those fine bits of grit hit my face. I'd squint my eyes to see if among the billowing clouds Chief Crazy Horse might come riding, with white lightening painted on his cheeks and hailstones painted on his horse, once more free in his domain, the Land of Shallow Water - Nebraska. So I shouldn't have been surprised when launching on this look at the art of Native American clothing that I would be fascinated by a magnificent shirt belonging to a Tashunca-uitco, whose real name I did not recognize, but whom I found out was known as Crazy Horse.
What started me on this investigation of Native American fashion (and yes, it is fashion) was my memory of once seeing a display of garments from the Chandler-Pohrt Collection Of Native American Art at the Seattle Art Museum. As I strolled through the display, I began to wonder who were these people who could wear such things? My favorite was a man's shirt that sported the sun, the moon and the stars! Who could wear something like that? There was no indication in the display. The poster for that exhibition, which hangs in my art studio, is of a woman's dress, again filled with suns and moons but also birds. It still bears the soft impression of the body that once wore it. I wondered what would it be like to wear a garment that spoke to the world of who you are? I also wondered at how ingenious it was to find such a unique way to add color and visual meaning to a life lived on the move through seas of buffalo grass under endless skies in the vastness of the American prairies.
Living as they did, their lives had to deal with the practicalities of their situation first. We have all heard of the buckskin clothing of the Old West. Well, in North American Native cultures that skin could come from deer, moose, or caribou. The hides were softened with a variety of preparations made from other parts of the animal or from a corn mash solution. Hides were then smoked for 1-2 hours to prevent shrinkage when they got wet. The colors of the hides were determined by the type of wood used for smoking. Young white cedar would create a light yellow or a buff color. Old white cedar produced a dark tan color. Frontiersmen and pioneers appreciated the practical effects of buckskin clothing because it protected the skin from the elements, including mosquitoes, flies, thistles and sandburrs. Their exceedingly comfortable fit made them popular. This attribute was used for dramatic effect by Native American writer Louise Erdrich when one of her characters, Salmon Jack, invited his mistress to come live with him and his wife. What was he thinking? The two women created for his birthday a beautiful suit of deerskin clothes. He was so thrilled and proud to wear it, as it fitted him like a second skin. And that is what it became, as he could never get it off. Drove him crazy.
As we can see decoration was an integral part of the clothing design. Spiritually important symbols, geometric designs, plant, animal and astronomical images were all possible design features used to decorate garments. The materials used to achieve these designs included paint, beads, feathers, and animal fur, accompanied by fringes hanging not just from the hem but from other areas in the garment as well. The clothes did not have pockets, so an assortment of bags were used to carry body paint, tobacco, sewing goods, pipes, charms, dried food, etc.
Symbolism and design did not stop with the upper body. Men wore leggings, often under long tunics. The leggings often bore designs like the ones seen below in what was a man's summer outfit in the far north of Canada and Alaska where the Gwich'in or Kutchin people live. I say, there's nothing like white for summer.
You will have noticed that attention is also paid to footwear. Boots and moccasins were also considered when creating clothing and often bore highly symbolic designs. I'll give an example from my visit to the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. There on the third floor is an enormous and well-curated exhibit of Native North American shoes.
Living as I do currently in the Southwestern U.S.A., I was captivated by these moccasins done by the Hopi. The first thing I noticed was the comforting color scheme so familiar to those of us who live in that area: turquoise, red, yellow, and terracotta. I found out though that these colors were not chosen just for their pleasing color harmonies. No, they have meaning. The turquoise is for sky and more importantly for water. The yellow is the ever present sun; the red is for the reddish colored rock and earth so frequently found here (Colorado after all is a Spanish word for red). And here is the thing that brings it all home to our often drought-stricken area: the flaps in that reddish color represent thirsty tongues.
So is there anything missing in these ensembles? We have fine suits of clothing, elegant dresses, both with personalized designs, and handbags/tote bags with fine stitching and bead work, plus shoes designed to get you around, match your outfit, and possibly remind you about your environment. What about some bling? Well, their necklaces, rings and bracelets were not necessarily shiny, though silver and copper were the metals of choice. The Plains Indians used bone, hide, claws, stones and quills to create decorative accessories. Once European settlers and traders came, glass beads became all the rage for decorating shoes, clothes, bags and necklaces, bracelets, etc. The Great Lakes tribes used shell and mother-of-pearl. Of course, it was once again the Southwest that held top honors for work in silver and all the many varieties of turquoise. Their traditions continue to this day with classy, stylish designs so simple they seem modern enough to work well with the clothing of these times.