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

Shirts of Power

Power—in a supernatural, spiritual, or physical sense—exists in differing degrees in certain special people in the American Indian world. 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.
In these shirts, the owners’ essence and presence offer a sense of energy. Wear patterns, marks, and stains bear intimate testimony to the individuals who owned them. Traditionalists believe everyday objects used by people of power become imbued with a power of their own, and Plains shirts, especially, bring together such spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects. Although these shirts are now separated from their original owners, the power of those relationships remains.
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 survive in the modern world.

John Hill "And the...war shirt is a very special garment to the individual that 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."
-John Hill (Apsaalooke)

Sicangu (Brulé) Lakota (Sioux)
Shirt (back), about 1853
Apsaalooke (Crow)
Shirt (back), pre-1850