From Sashes to Sandals – Extreme Sophistication in Native Clothing

Ceremonial clothing such as headdresses, mantles, complex twined bags and baskets have been recovered from elite mound burials in Spiro, Oklahoma and a few other items have been found at places such as Etowah but little had been recoverd from village sites until Wickliffe. Evidence comes fabric impressed pottery very clearly depicting techniques used to make twined textiles from a variety of plant fibers including dogbane (hemp); nettle and milkweed. The woody stems are harvested in the fall and inside are fibers that are twisted together to make twine and from there the sky is the limit. The increased number of complex structural trends parallels the increased social complexity deduced from Mississippian settlement configurations.(Penelope Ballad Drooker) Meaning that the more textile construction techniques there are and the more complex they become, it seems to be a reflection of the increasing complexities in everyday life.

Unfortunately there is an extremely limited amount of remaining textile material to investigate, however large-sized Mississippian textiles like those of earlier periods, tend to come in rectangular forms used for skirts, mantles, and blankets. Three-dimensional objects such as bags and pouches are also common. There is a lot more to the manufacturing of textiles than what is found in archaeological sites. Questions remain if this was a task relegated to one gender or whether both participated. Although cultures and societies came and disappeared, often without explanation — types of sophisticated woven textiles were worn right up through the contact period.

Moravian Missionary, David Zeisburger left journals with details of twined clothing being worn only a generation before. He was among the Delaware in Ohio in the mid to late 18th century. Hovey Lake archaeological site in extreme southwest Indiana is a site that was populated from about 1400 to 1700 with remnants of the Angel Mound people. They seem to have continued a tradition of making clothing and using twined textiles to imprint pottery. The interpretation that Cheryl Ann Munson has given of Hovey Lake regarding this issue is stated very clearly on the Hovey Lake website, “Villagers wove a variety of fabric items such as blankets, wraps, skirts, and bags, using yarns spun from plant fibers. Knotted nets were another type of fabric.”

There are few descriptions of this type of clothing being worn by Native people after contact thus again, the lack of evidence to concretely state that the use of plant fibers continued well into the 17th century. There are a few visual pieces that can be interpreted as being made from plant fibers including one by artist John White in 16th century Virginia of a “Religious Man” depicted as wearing a short twined cloak covering the left arm while leaving the right arm exposed. There is substantial evidence to strongly suggest that the basic pre and proto-contact garment worn by females was a wraparound skirt. It is usually described as being knee length and this garment was then transferred to trade cloth by the mid-18th century. Some resources mention native fabric skirts for Virginia and North Carolina said to made of “silk grass with a bottom fringe.”

Men seem to have worn mantles as a single tunic like garment or perhaps in combination with or over a breechclout. Women almost always are described as wearing mantles in combination with a skirt. These “styles” continued into the 18th century when wool trade cloth, cotton, silk and linen fabrics were being introduced through trade. By the mid-18th century Thomas Davies began illustrating Huron and other Great Lakes people and consistently put females in a type of trade cloth skirt and wool leggings. Shirts seem to be highly valued in terms of what Native people trade for. Cotton from India and the Middle East made its way to the trade centers in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes. It ranked higher than trade rifles in lists of goods in high demand. Shirts were worn over skirts and breechclouts with wool blankets taking the place of earlier plant fiber mantles. Silk ribbons in a variety of colors and sizes were in great demand as well. Many of the early examples the author has seen in museums and collections make use of one or two colors of silk ribbons in multiple rows starting at the hem of a garment and sometimes reaching half-way to the waist. Along with this came the use of trade silver ear rings, ear wheels, cone and ball, triangular pieces used in both noses and ears, silver crosses, and brooches from tiny button size to ring brooches placed in multiple rows and in some instances effecting geometrical design patterns on both shirts and skirts.

Silk scarves were worn about the head as a turban on males and sometimes used as neck wraps on women. The use of silver brooches on silk scarves and blankets continued to increase towards the end of the 18th century. Also a change in the way silk ribbons were used came about in the very late part of the 18th century and was fully developed by 1802 as cut work silk applique style that became very popular and was depicted extensively in the Wabash Valley by English painter, George Winter. He spent 1838-1839 with the Miami and Potawatomi Indians of central and northern Indiana. His dozens of portraits give insight to the lives and culture of the last days of these extraordinary people before forced removals by the US government altered their lives and traditions forever. Silk turbans and shoulder length hair on the men became quite the norm. In the 18th century we see men with shaven heads, scalp locks, gastoweh or hair roach attached to the scalplock. Men in the 18th century seem to have slit their ears and pierced them to accommodate an extra outer row of ear rings, wampum or other ornamentation.

The leggings in the 19th century show a wider band or wing flap where the two halves of the cloth were stitched together and embellished with silk ribbonwork applique. Fingerwoven sashes or belts were worn by both men and women but now made from wool threads or yarn rather than plant fibers. Moccasins replaced fiber sandals and were mostly constructed from a single piece of leather, usually elk or buffalo. They had wing flaps, were of center seam construction and often embellished with porcupine quillwork on the flaps and sometimes down the center seam. Fringe on the flaps consisted of tin or silver cones each with a piece of red or orange deertail hair extending from it. White glass beads sometimes were sewn to the edges of the flaps thus offering a finished look. By the 1830’s silk ribbonwork dominated the flaps of Miami and Potwatomi moccasins in the central region of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley as well as among Potawatomi and Menominee of Wisconsin. Extensive use of beads to create applique work was not done by the Miami, Potawatomi, Piankeshaw or other tribes of this region until they were removed to Kansas and Oklahoma. The museum collections in Canada, Chicago, Grand Rapids and other places support this evidence.

As George Winter noted, these clothes with fancy ribbons of silk and men’s frock coats, ladies silk parasols and silk shawls were worn on a regular basis and not just for funerals or ceremonies. Winter stayed in the log cabin belonging to captive Frances Slocum and made numerous observations in his journals to this effect.

A marked change in the blouse or shirt that women were wearing came about at the beginning of the 19th century. Kakima Burnett, a Potawatomi woman who was married to an American trader was highly influenced by Catholic nuns and missionaries that frequented the Potawatomi villages in southwestern Michigan when the Burnetts established a trading operation in 1780. Kakima was the daughter of Chief Aniquiba and sister of Topenebee, principal chief of the Potawatomi in the southwestern Michigan. They were married by a Catholic priest in Detroit. Their sons were educated in Detroit by Catholic nuns. One of the sons came to the Fort Wayne, Indiana area and was associated with Issac McCoy, a missionary among the Indians. Kakima came to Indiana after her husband’s death sometime around the end of the War of 1812. With all of the influence of “Black Robes” Kakima and other women of her same background and culture began emulating the nuns by wearing large collars on their shirts. By the 1830’s it is clear that this style or tradition had taken hold throughout the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley. George Winter depicts many of the Potawtomi and Miami women, some who were not necessarily of Catholic faith, wearing the large collar blouses or shirts. The large capes gave the women additional ways to embellish their garments with silver brooches and silk ribbons. The earliest known illustration is of a woman wearing a caped blouse in the Detroit area around 1814. Another early depiction clearly shows a Seneca woman of western New York wearing one as she teaches young Iroquois children in a frame longhouse.

After researching countless garments of this period, there seemed to be two decidedly different types of caped blouse. One that reached to the midriff and one that was long and was called a waist. The shorter styles may be those that were worn by the unmarried ladies of the village until that time when they took a husband. Then the longer, fuller styles with a larger center opening seem to be worn by married women who would be bearing children, thus making it easier to nurse through the larger neck opening. More research on this is still being done.

By the end of the 1830’s and 1840’s thousands of these central Wabash and Ohio Valley Natives were forced to leave their homes and go west to Kansas and then to Oklahoma. The ribbon skirts, the caped blouses and the leggings, and even the breechclouts were part of a tradition that stayed partly intact in Oklahoma into the 20th century. There are reflections of this pre-removal era in modern pow wow’s but many cross-cultural adaptions have been made since then.

Many other items that were left with family members were sold to collectors for food and spare change during the depression era. There are significant collections of Miami clothing and other material cultural items in the Cranbrook Institute in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. There are some Potawatomi items in the Chicago Field Museum collections. 18th and 19th century quillwork bags, moccasins, finger woven sashes and knife sheaths are scattered throughout Europe, often taken as effects of war or gifts during trade or treaty negotiations in the 18th and 19th centuries by military officers. Others were sold to collectors in New York and California.

Many items from a number of Great Lakes and Ohio Valley tribes are in the back rooms in storage in the American Indian Museum on the Mall in Washington D.C. Formerly many of those items were located in the Heye Foundation in the Bronx, New York where they were stored in crowded storage rooms and drawers. There are several books, mostly out of print, including “Bou Jou Nee Jee”; “Spirit Sings Collection” and “Patterns of Power, the McMichael Canadian Collection” that were published based on exhibits from the 1970’s and 1980’s. They have a fairly large selection of items that have been studied intently by historians and reenactors wishing to recreate the clothing and quillwork, fingerweaving and trade silver and be as accurate and authentic as possible when talking to the public and working with students.

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