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It’s easy to imagine that a man wearing this shirt would stand out in a crowd. Pink bands of color jump off bright red wool. Bold patterns spring from rows of tightly sewn beads. Curtains of animal hide fringe dangle from all sides, to flow with every move. The man wearing this shirt would surely seem larger than life.

A shirt like this one grabs the attention of anyone who sees it. But for the people of the Plains Indian tribe who made and wore the shirt, its impact went beyond the details just noticed. The way a shirt was made, the materials it was made of, and how it was used provided an even greater honor than its visual beauty—a connection to the powerful traditions of one’s people.

A’ani/Nakoda (Gros Ventre/Assiniboine), Great Plains region (United States)
Shirt (front view), about 1890, wool, beads, animal hide, and ribbon

The shirt honors an individual, but involves the community.
The shapes and patterns of the shirt are rooted in tradition.
The shirt tells the story of a changing way of life.

Is that diamond shape a feather?: Plains Indian beadwork designs are often geometric, symmetrical, and limited to three or four colors. It is hard to know when a design is based on a natural object, like a feather or animal track, and when it is just a pleasing pattern. Explore the process of making abstractions from nature by creating symmetrical patterns based on natural forms. Use two or three colors to fill in squares on small grid paper. Are other people able to recognize what natural form a design is based on?  

The clothes in your closet: The materials and techniques used to create Plains Indian shirts changed over the course of the 19th century. Take a survey of the clothing worn by students in a 21st century American classroom. What kinds of materials are most common? What qualities do those materials have? How are those materials produced? What parts of the clothing are functional? What parts are just decorative? What different ways is decoration applied? What types of images appear? Compile a catalog of these observations with written descriptions and illustrations of the groupings noticed.  

Completing the outfit: Honor shirts were worn as part of a full outfit including leggings, moccasins and a headdress. View a selection of moccasins from the museum's collection in Art Collector by clicking here. (Click here to learn more about Art Collector.) Which pair of moccasins seems to fit best with this shirt? What do you see that makes you say that? In what ways are all moccasins similar? In what ways do they differ? Consider colors, patterns, and materials.  

Honorable behavior, now and then: Only men who behaved bravely and honorably for the good of the community wore shirts like this one. The book Black Elk Speaks (available at Hennepin County Public Library) presents one man?s memories of Plains Indian life in the 19th century. Read selections and discuss what types of behavior were considered honorable in Black Elk?s time. (Younger students might consider the same question through the many picture books of Paul Goble, which accurately evoke life on the Plains at that time.) Then examine a recent issue of Indian Country (available online) and consider what actions are considered honorable for the good of the community today.  

Hail, Barbara A. Hau, Kóla! The Plains Indian Collection of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1980)

Horse Capture, Joseph D. and George P. Horse Capture, Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) exhibition website

Maurer, Evan. Visions of the People: A Pictorial History of Plains Indian Life (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1992)

Thom, Laine. Becoming Brave: The Path to Native American Manhood (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992)  

February 2004