"To Please the Spirits": Native American Clothing

For thousands of years, Native American women have made beautiful and functional clothing for their families. They used their skills to prepare hides and to cut and sew tailored clothing which would protect their families from harsh weather. In making and decorating clothing, women also expressed values central to Native American societies: industry, generosity, and especially kinship.

The garments on display in the North American clothing case (near the totem pole) were labours of love and skill. It takes about 40 hours of hard physical work to prepare a hide properly so it can be used for clothing: the hide must be carefully removed from the animal, scraped of flesh, and preparations rubbed into it to prevent it from rotting. It then needs to be stretched and rubbed to soften it, and then evenly smoked to a beautiful tan colour. Native women had very high standards for the preparation of hides, and would notice if someone's hides were poorly prepared.

Cutting and sewing a hide shirt, dress, or coat also involved very skilled work. Garments were cut to take advantage of the natural shape of hides. The leather was cut using flint blades, and later, scissors or steel knives traded from Europeans. Seams were sewn with thread made from sinew, the long muscles along the back of a hoofed mammal, which was carefully dried and split into even lengths. Even after European contact, women preferred to use sinew for sewing, which they simply passed through a hole in the hide made with an awl. Steel awls were very efficient, and could be made out of scraps of items traded from Europeans set into bone handles; Plains women wore awl cases as accessories on their belts much as European women wore "chatelaines" with scissors.

Women decorated clothing with porcupine quillwork (and, later, glass beads imported by European trading companies from Czechoslovakia and Italy!), hide fringe, scraps of cloth, and animal teeth or dentalium shell. This was a family effort: a young woman wearing a dress with many elk-teeth sewn to it showed the world how successful her male kin were at hunting elk. Glass trade beads and dentalium shells were obtained by men in exchange for furs, meat, and other goods from other tribes and from traders. Decorated clothing said a great deal about kinship, which was very important in Native American societies. Clothing was usually made as a gift to close family members, and today, Native Americans still make beaded and quilled moccasins, pow-wow regalia, and other items as labours of love for their relatives, who serve as mobile art galleries for women's art and skill.

Clothing also referred to another kind of kinship, for Native American peoples have always believed that humans and animals are related, and should treat each other kindly, as relatives should. Animals are not simply killed; they give themselves to humans for food and clothing, and hunters thank them for this gift and treat their bodies with respect by using as much of the animal as possible.

The painted coat in this display shows this feeling of kinship in another way. Innu (Naskapi) women of northern Quebec and Labrador adapted frock coats traded from Europeans into their own caribou-hide garments. They carefully copied the cutting and seaming of the European cloth coats, but added a very Naskapi twist: a vertical triangular panel at the back of the coat skirt which extends from hem to waist. This panel represents the mountain where the Lord of the Caribou was believed to live. The coats were painted in a traditional method; such designs were traditionally painted on caribou hides, which were displayed by hunters to the rising sun, the source of life, each dawn. Men wore these coats only when they went out to hunt caribou, as a way of honouring the caribou spirits who were being asked to give their bodies so that humans could live. Today, Naskapi hunters still often wear a new item of clothing on the hunt, to honour the caribou.

Several of the shirts in the clothing case are also special items of men's gear: they were made for the ceremonial occasions of going off to war and of coming back from war. The hairlocks attached to shoulder strips by Plains men were sometimes of human hair from an enemy they had scalped or killed; the act of obtaining such hair was important in being recognized as a man in many Plains tribes. Some war shirts were also painted with images of captives, sacred objects, weapons, and horses captured from enemies, visual proof of a warriors experience and skill.

Native American people were discouraged from wearing traditional clothes under government policies which encouraged them to assimilate. From 1914 to 1951, the Canadian Indian Act forbade the wearing of "aboriginal costume" on penalty of either a fine or a month's imprisonment. Even during this time, though, Native women made beaded and quilled clothing which their men wore with pride on important occasions. These distinctive clothes became defiant symbols of Native identity, and their wearing signalled resistance to assimilation policies. Today, many Native people in North America wear beaded and quilled jackets, moccasins, and other traditional garments on special occasions such as weddings, and Native artisans are in great demand to produce such clothing for their families and to teach children the traditional skills. The items in this case are part of the living heritage of some of the three million Native people in North America today.

Compiled by Dr. Laura Peers, Lecturer/ Curator .