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


Plains Indians have reinterpreted their traditional styles—and ways—many times over. The 19th century brought waves of European-American settlers to the Plains and devastating change to Indian life. Reservations, boarding schools, and acculturation undermined the Indian belief in personal freedom. Forced religious conversions and exposure to deadly new diseases were especially destructive. And often, the United States government forced tribes, who once roamed widely to hunt buffalo, to stay in one place and farm.
Other European-American influences were more benign but had far-reaching consequences nonetheless. The Industrial Revolution brought new trade products to the Plains that changed Indian artwork forever. Beadwork—sewn with European glass beads and thread—nearly replaced traditional quillwork, made from porcupine quills and sinew. Shirts, originally constructed from animal hides, started being fabricated from wool blankets or cotton and then fitted with quilled or beaded strips. Sometimes, they were replaced altogether by manufactured clothing.
Indian makers also began incorporating American flags, floral patterns from imported fabrics, and Christian crosses into their decorations. New embellishments like cowrie shells and coins also appeared on festive clothing. The Plains shirt found new life in the hands of master ribbon workers in Oklahoma, whose influence can be seen in the geometric and abstract floral overlays in contemporary ribbon shirts.

Burton Pretty On Top "We live in the tradition that one is judged as being a success by how much they have done for the people. Unlike in the white tradition...success is obtain a lot of material things in your lifetime: you have a lot of land, you have a big old house, swimming pool, drive around with a Lincoln Continental, whatever....But we Native Americans, we’re not as materialistic...We live in the tradition where what we have done for others, in service of our people, is what really counts."
-Burton Pretty On Top (Apsaalooke)

Coat (front), about 1890
Patricia C. Bird
Nakoda (Assiniboine-Sioux)
Ribbon Shirt (front), 1981