General 5-16-2004

Book, Art Review: The Clothing of Honor

Dean Seal reviews the fine exhibition of Plains Indian shirts at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The show was only up through May 16, but there is a book just out from University of Minnesota Press that serves as the exhibition’s catalogue.

Beauty, Honor, Tradition

“Beauty, Honor, Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts,” to May 16, 2004. See website for details. You can also order the book on line or buy it at the museum’s gift shop ($34.95). Published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Forty-three shirts are standing in the exhibition halls to be looked at and meditated upon, and it is quite a sight. These shirts have hypnotic presence, because they are not recreations but the real thing, and somebody once wore them. A shirt that once conformed to a Plains Indian body is now standing in this hall, empty but for the support of a mannequin form, here to be studied and admired. One wishes to see them in their flowering, on the men who earned them, and hear the stories of why the tribe honored them.

These are ceremonial shirts showing the best of Indian craftsmanship, not for decoration only but to infuse the wearer with a spirituality that can envelop him. Most were gathered up over a hundred years ago; so they were at one time worn by the people who made them. These are sacramental clothes in the sense of a priest who is putting on clothing for a service, clothing that helps put her in the place where something sacred can happen.

The bad news is this exhibit is winding down as of this writing. If you haven’t seen the show, the good news is you can still get the catalogue. It is a superb volume of 160 pages, most of which hold color plates. There is commentary from various native experts, a rich display of the detail work, and the poignant history that accompanies the life of the shirts and their wearers. The book is by George D. Horse Capture and George P. Horse Capture, curators of the exhibit.

The show comes to us from the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, which is part of the Smithsonian Institute. The clothing captures the tactile peak of the Plains Horse Culture. The shirts were made to honor the men who were bravest, who had earned the respect of the tribe. In the native culture, men acted as hunters and warriors and women kept the camp; that division of labor is seen here: women made the shirts and men wore them. It is the women’s skill as artists that is on display, but the shirts are worn by the men who put themselves at risk for the sake of the tribe, who were the first on the battlefield and the last off. And beware the warrior who did not live up to his honor each time they went out; the shirt could be taken back if the wearer was not worthy of the honor that was being bestowed.

The earlier shirts were made from whole animal skins, from deer, mountain sheep, or the hides of elk, and were elaborately decorated with designs and with storytelling tableaux. They were cut poncho-style, usually using the hole made from removing the neck of the animal as the place to put one’s head through. This gave the wearer the attributes of the animal they were wearing. Additional decoration and design added other attributes of power, or of being able to escape the bullets of the enemy. For example, dragonfly designs were to remind the warrior of the speed and agility of the dragonfly, a smart predator. Other designs recalled the spirit of the bear or the eagle which the wearer would be inspired to emulate.

The most amazing technique demonstrated in the traditional shirt is the use of porcupine quills to create designs of geometric or animal abstraction designs. The quills are softened and dyed, then braided and sewn into the shirt.

The catalogue talks not only of the pieces and the detail work, but also the nature of the spirituality that infused the decorating and the ceremonial use of these shirts. The catalogue is also scrupulous in correcting our misnaming of tribes, delineating the different areas of Plains tribes, and showing the varied styles coexisting within Plains Indian culture.

The Shirts of Power were an attempt to tap into the forces in the universe which could add “a supernatural, spiritual, or physical sense. . . . This force can emanate from various sources: profound spirituality, extraordinary strength and physical abilities, superlative performance as a warrior, brilliant leadership, a close interaction with The One Above, or any combinations of these sources.” And it worked both ways; the shirts used by a person of power became imbued with the power of that person, too.

The tradition survives in shirts that honor the wearer for surviving in the modern world, and accomplishments therein. Today, Plains Indians no longer earn shirts in life-and-death battles. Rather, young men and women demonstrate excellence and skill academically or athletically. The contemporary shirt, then, honors the recipient’s accomplishments and ability to live a good life in the mixed and often ambiguous society that faces us now, a struggle that can be as difficult as battle.

As times changed, the shirts changed. Glass beads from Italy became more common, and bright red woolen shirts were favored as time passed. The evolution of native visual culture and its inflection through encounters with European-based culture can be seen in the evolving forms, materials, and styles of these shirts. Interviews with tribal elders spell out the connections between cultures as well. John Hill (Apsaalooke) describes the sense that accompanied the garments. “We were in the Second World War. And back [in] that day, . . . we had the ribbons. Some have ribbons all the way down . . . Campaign ribbons . . . they’re really special. They’re very sacred. And the . . . war shirt is a very special garment to the individual [who] owns it. They don’t wear it every day. Only on special occasions. Special ceremonies. . . . And before an individual becomes an outstanding chief, he’s got to accomplish so many [kinds of] particular requirements.”

To the Plains Indians, this sense of honoring the warrior was life itself. They were honored not just for being brave, but for giving up their innocence. They took the hardships on behalf of the tribe, took on danger on behalf of the women and children, took the bullet to protect their elders. They would rather die on the battlefield than come back disgraced. This is a military tradition based on protecting the life of the tribe, and honoring those who do. Their preparation was to imbue their sensibilities with the virtues they wanted to imitate, reminders and mnemonic devices so that when the time came, they acted with honor.

That’s training. That’s preparation. That’s something the modern army doesn’t seem to make into a priority any more. It’s times like these that makes “civilization” seem so uncivilized.