by Lauren Ciriac Wenger
The Hershey Story’s American Indian collection contains a variety of items from American Indian groups of the Great Plains region, including several clothing items and adornments. They are artfully created, decorated with beads, quills, and other traditional materials. The detail and quality of these objects truly display the makers’ skillfulness and care.
The most common materials used to create clothing and adornments were deer and elk hides, porcupine quills, elk teeth, bone, and bird or animal claws. These were available in the Great Plains region, located between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Dentalium shells, a type of mollusk shell, were also used. These were obtained through trade with American Indian tribes that lived near bodies of water, mainly the Northwest Coast groups. Through European contact and trade, glass beads, including pony beads (a name attributed to the way in which they were transported—by traders on their pack horses) and seed beads (called this because of their tiny size), became increasingly popular, along with metal cones, or “jinglers,” made from re-purposed objects such as tobacco tin lids. Also through trade, fabric dresses were incorporated into the repertoire of Plains groups.
Traditionally, while men obtained the hides through hunting, women did the rest. They tanned the hides, making them soft and pliable, and then constructed the garment and added the intricate decoration. Designs on clothing symbolize the things the maker saw around her, such as the sky, moon and stars, water, animals, and tepees. Sometimes the designs also depicted important events.
While styles of dresses varied somewhat throughout the Plains region, a basic style was the two-skin, or binary dress. It was made by sewing together two hide panels made of elk, bighorn sheep, or deer skin. The hind legs of the animal became the shoulder area of the dress. Shoulder seams were sewn a few inches below the uneven edges of the skins, and the edges flapped over with the tails hanging down at the center of the chest and back. The oval pattern at the center of the chest on the beaded dress from The Hershey Story’s collection possibly mimics where the tail would normally sit. Another style of dress was similar to the binary style, but with a separate third piece making up a larger yoke that sits around the neck and shoulder area. Leggings and moccasins were worn also.
Before beads became available, dresses and other clothing were adorned with shells, porcupine quills, and other natural materials, and paint made from minerals, clays, and plants mixed with a binder such as animal fat. Even after newer trade materials became readily available and widely used, most of these time-honored materials were still utilized.
Traditional dress of men of the Plains region before the mid-19th century included leggings, moccasins, and a breechcloth, and in the winter, a buffalo robe. Adornments included hair suspensions which were tied to the hair, armbands, and earrings. The “war shirt”, the heavily decorated shirt many are familiar with, was only worn by distinguished leaders until the mid-19th century, and did not contain beads but rather quills and painted designs, as well as hair.
Early shirts were a poncho shape made of two panels of hide sewn across the shoulders leaving a neck opening. Sleeves were attached on the sides. The hemline of the sleeves and sides of the shirt were not sewn, and fringe was added. This design was still made during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and open fringed sides can be seen in the shirt from the museum’s collection. It is decorated with glass seed beads, feathers, horsehair, and quills.
Many of the more ornate items were, and are still, used mainly for celebrations or for highly honored individuals. Much of the Plains clothing in The Hershey Story’s collection is this type, as opposed to everyday wear. War bonnet headdresses such as the one pictured here were originally only worn as recognition of brave deeds during battle. After the Plains Indians Wars (1850s -1890s) though, tribal regulations regarding the right to wear war bonnets became more relaxed, and were worn at community celebrations as a mark of honor.
The bear claw necklace is a common item of Plains jewelry. Animals have always been honored and respected among American Indian groups. Bears were admired for their strength and power. Plains warriors wore bear claw necklaces as a means of protection during battle through the spirit of the bear. The necklace is also part of celebratory clothing worn during special occasions.
This breastplate is made of “hair pipe” beads— long beads made of bone, in this case, or conch shell. They were worn during battle but were mainly an adornment as they did not offer extensive protection. It is also worn as a part of ceremonial regalia.
During the 1800s, new materials and items were introduced to American Indian culture through settlers. But while new materials were used, makers adapted them to their traditional styles and techniques—and old materials were not abandoned, but rather used alongside the new. For example, while glass beads were simpler to use, quillwork—with its lengthy process of removal, dyeing, sorting by size, softening and flattening—was still done. American Indians also used commercially-manufactured items and added their own traditional materials and designs to them to make them their own. The gauntlets pictured above show how a commercial product, the gloves, was combined with American Indian beaded design. The fringe was added on as well. The horse image is more realistic rather than geometric, a style that began in the late 1800s and was mainly used for trade items.
The vest is another European style garment that became popular among American Indians of the Plains during the 19th century. It followed the design of a European style vest but was made with traditional American Indian materials including buckskin and seed beads. For women, the trade cloth dress was introduced in the late 1800s. Fabric was folded at the shoulder, with a slit cut for the head, and sleeves added at right angles creating a “T” shape. The influence of the two-skin dress is apparent, and materials like beading and dentalium shells were used to decorate the garment. These items were worn mainly for celebrations and cultural events.
Even as the use of trade materials increased, traditional styles and decorations remained and are still present to this day. These are much more than just items of clothing to those that create and wear them. Through the process of making and act of wearing these items, American Indian people of the Great Plains maintain connection to their history, their ancestors, and their cultural traditions.