10 June 2020

Native American Plains Decoration Techniques

Today on her Happy Ever After website Sharon Booth is hosting my guest post explaining how I came to research Beneath The Shining Mountains. If you’ve just hopped across from there, Welcome! If you’ve arrived here first, please follow the link above to read the original post – it’s not long and this one will then make more sense (probably).

It seems that I was almost born with an interest in Native American Plains peoples. My mother, who cut my first coup bonnet from newspaper when I was four, doubtless rolled her eyes and thought I’d grow out of it. I didn’t. I ended up making a tipi, haggling with the local tannery for sheepskins (no bison or antelope skins being available), and dragging my own family to weekend pow-wows and week-long summer camps. Yes, in the UK. The British are renown for their eccentricity.

If a writer’s watchword is What if…? then a re-enactor’s must be How did they…? closely followed by Why did they…? Why did the native peoples of the northern plains decorate just about everything they owned? Good question. Some of the colours and designs were tribal, some denoted status, some had religious significance, some encapsulated a bit of all three. Click on the images for a larger view.

Parfleches c1880-85. Left a Brulé Sioux design; right a Cheyenne design.
The two peoples lived in relatively close proximity, sometimes trading, sometimes skirmishing, 
yet the distinctive designs are particular to each.

Earth and vegetable pigments were used most often on items of luggage, which was usually made of rawhide for strength and durability. The pigments were crushed, mixed with animal fat or tallow and applied to the rawhide by brush and/or stick by pressure so the dye impregnated the rawhide. Parfleches were often made in pairs and carried whatever was needed, from clothing to the winter’s dried meat supply. They were tied to a travois platform when moving camp, hence the need for durability.

 Moccasins with porcupine quillwork decoration.
Left Seneca 1808; right Crow (Apsaroke) or Sioux 1882. 

The Seneca are an Iroquoian Great Lakes people whose territory abutted the plains. They favoured the one-piece soft-soled moccasin against the separate, often rawhide-soled moccasin of the plains. The central strip of decoration masks the seam. By the 1880s enforced reservation life was a reality and the bright yellow pigment of the moccasins on the right may have been from a traded dye. The design was for a religious Sun Dance ceremony, the old-style of decoration probably part of the vow rather than using quicker beadwork which would have been the norm by that time.

Before the influx of fur trappers and traders, porcupine quillwork was the most extensive form of decoration for clothing and small bags. It involved a great amount of work. Porcupines were trapped or, if in abundance, sought and a skin thrown over them so their hooked quills came away. The quills were boiled in a natural pigment mixture and dried for future use. Decoration involved holding several in the mouth so they softened, flattening one between the teeth, then folding it between two sinew threads pushed through a fine hole in the skin punched by a thorn or bone awl. Adding further quills constructed a band of decoration as thin as the width of your smallest fingernail. It wasn’t so much hours’ as days’ or even weeks’ of work.
Left Yanktonai, Nakota woman’s strap dress, early 19th century.
Right Crow or Nez Perce man’s exploit shirt 1860.

The dress is made from two very soft and whitened deerskins and is unusually tailored; certainly more ceremonial than everyday. It carries both traded early pony and some later, smaller, seed beads alongside the fine quillwork hoops. Pairs of tin cones adorn the lower skirt so the woman would ‘tinkle’ as she walked. Small sheets of tin, or later even food tins, were sought as trade items for this purpose. Pony and seed beads were made of glass and produced in Venice and Bohemia. The man’s shirt was worn to exemplify his worth among his people to visitors and to enemies during conflicts. The ‘strap’ decoration, made separately and sewn as separate pieces to the shirt, are made from quill-wrapped horse-hair edged in both pony and seed beads.

 Two dresses from the Sioux confederacy: left 1875-1900; right c1870 Lakota or Teton

Trade routes between the peoples of North America extended long before Europeans arrived, and shells were a highly-sought exotic: abalone, cowrie, and shown left dentalium. Most women might have aspired to earrings or a necklace; this blue trade-cloth dress was owned by a woman of a powerful family, the dentalium shells probably gathered over generations, re-used and added to. Again, the skin dress shows social standing. Even by the 1870s glass beads imported by traders from Europe were not a cheap item, and to have an entire sleeved yoke decorated in seed beads was a mark of prestige. Sky-blue designs were a feature of the Sioux peoples.

I hope you have enjoyed this small snapshot of the decorative techniques of the northern plains peoples. Read Beneath The Shining Mountains if you’d like to hear how these were used in an everyday setting.

All images are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum and used under a Creative Commons License.

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