The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts, February 22 - May 16, 2004

Power in Details

From the tiniest details on small items to the more comprehensive decoration of larger objects, Plains Indian people have demonstrated a keen aesthetic that empowers both the object and its owner. Shirts created for honored community members were carefully constructed and decorated. Most war shirts have common elements, like beaded or quilled arm and chest bands, leather fringe, and hair locks. These designs helped endow the garments with special powers, but such extra details also gave the shirts a more commanding appearance.
Artisans routinely attached leather fringes and hair locks to war shirts. The hair, whether given to the wearer by his family or taken from an enemy or animal, was an embodiment of personal honor. Hair locks also added another element to the shirt’s design. When the wearer rode his horse, for example, the locks would undulate, creating a further sense of energy and physical presence.
Painted designs and sewn-on ornaments also contribute to the overall beauty of these garments. Carefully selected by the maker, these details not only complement the shirt’s appearance but refer to cultural ideas and stories. Occasionally, however, the painting on the shirt may not have a specific meaning but functions simply as a pleasing component of the shirt’s design.

David Stewart "Each one of those hair or [ermine] decorations that is hung or tied [on] the shirt indicates all of his many deeds [and] accomplishments. That’s just like in this modern age, where a gentleman might go to war...[and earn] a medal or some distinguished service for his country. So they give him a medal. This is the medal [for an Indian warrior]...a scalp, which is affixed to the clothing."
-David Stewart (Apsaalooke)

Itazipcho (Sans Arc) Lakota (Sioux)
Shirt (back), about 1870
Pikuni or Siksika (Blackfeet)
Shirt (back), about 1880