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Native American Warshirts
War shirts are not only beautifully crafted garments. They are spectacular works of art and symbolize the very essence of a warrior: heritage, coup (accomplishments in battle), and the wearer's character. They were also the proud life’s work of—usually—Native women who created them for their male warrior husbands, sons, or fathers.
In 2012, at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in Reno, Nevada, Chief Joseph’s long-lost war shirt from his epic struggle in 1877 to save his Nez Perce tribe was sold at auction for nearly $900,000. The shirt had shown up in the late 1800s in historic photographs and portraits, including a famous painting by Cyrenius Hall at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute. As a prisoner of war detained in horrific conditions, Joseph was photographed by John Fouch in 1877 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, wearing the war shirt. Still, at Leavenworth, famous portrait painter Cyrenius Hall painted the great chief in June 1878, wearing the same war shirt. Nearly 100 years later, in 1968, the U.S. postal service issued a Chief Joseph commemorative stamp with Joseph wearing the same shirt.
But the shirt had disappeared for many decades. It surfaced at a 1990s Indian relic show and was sold without any knowledge of its epic provenance. It changed hands many times after that until its true history was uncovered. It is Chief Joseph’s ceremonial war shirt, but not the rawhide shirt he wore at the Battle of the Bear Paw, the last stand for Joseph and his people. Shortly after the surrender at which Joseph uttered his famous words, “I will fight no more forever,” Colonel Miles requested Chief Joseph’s bullet-riddled and bloody rawhide shirt. Harper’s Weekly later reported Miles wanted it as a souvenir, for it bore 20 bullet holes. Miles was quoted: [It] “was visible evidence of the fierce fighting and that Joseph had been where lead was flying.” Who knows where that shirt is now? Perhaps thrown away or burned years later, thought to be so ragged it was worthless, its priceless history lost forever.
Chief Joseph’s magnificent ceremonial war shirt, which did survive, was sold to a private collector in 2012 and then purchased by billionaire William I. Koch, who loaned it for a short time to be displayed at the Yellowstone Art Museum. It is not the only war shirt that has been sold at auction for an astronomical amount to a wealthy private collector nor the most expensive. That distinction goes to an Oglala Sioux beaded and fringed hide war shirt originally owned by Chief Black Bird who was "a likely participant at the Battle of Little Bighorn." Chief Black Bird also wore the shirt performing later in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It sold in New York at a Sotheby’s auction to a private collector for $2,658,500, a record for a Native American work at auction.
Another war shirt gem sold in San Francisco in 2011 for nearly $340,000 was part of a small collection: an extremely rare Cheyenne war shirt believed to be that of famous Sioux leader, Chief Spotted Tail of the Sicangu (burned thighs) Lakota and one of the earliest Cheyenne war shirts still preserved from as early as the 1830s. The war shirt was sold to a private collector despite strong criticism from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
The war shirts of Chief Joseph, Chief Black Bird, and Chief Spotted Tail are all of the classic sleeved poncho type, made of two full skins, probably deerskin. The hide was cut between the front legs to the back, and then the haunch ends of the hides were joined at the shoulders to form the sleeves, with the forelegs retained below the open armpits as long shirt tails. Originally, the natural shape of the animal skin was preserved as much as possible, honoring the spirit of the animal. (Later, as white civilization began to influence native design, and especially during the reservation era of native containment, shirts became more angular.) Sewn onto the front and back of the neck openings is a hide flap or bib covered with red wool trade cloth and partially beaded.
The three war shirts, like many classic war shirts especially of the Plains Indians, are based on what is called a “Transmontane art style” that shared various influences from different tribes. One basic characteristic of such a style is the bars of beadwork, sinew-sewn on separate strips of hide, crossing the shoulders and running down the sleeves, usually with geometric designs of solid blocks of color, framed with finger-width lanes of contrasting color.
Many tribes traded with each other and borrowed style ideas for their garments. Nez Perce and Crow, for example, traded and hunted buffalo near Missouri River trade centers. The Nez Perce were the most horse-rich tribe on the continent and traded their coveted Appaloosa horses with the Crow, who were admired for their initially bolder Plateau designs. Nez Perce and Crow women traded materials and design ideas so copiously that Nez Perce and Crow shirts became nearly indistinguishable.
Creating war shirts (usually by women but occasionally by men) was considered a sacred activity. The use of various materials and pelts of animals was ingenious and symbolism of the materials played a crucial role in creation. For example, Joseph’s war shirt is spectacularly fringed with white (winter) weasel fur tipped with the black fur of jackrabbits, referring to the fierce aggression of the weasel and the speed of the jackrabbit. In addition to the red wool wrappings, some of these weasel fringes were secured with a very tough pericardium membrane taken from the skin bag around the heart.
Hair—human hair provided by family members and the warrior’s own locks, hair of a favorite war horse, even human scalps taken as a coup—often served as fringe, as did long rawhide strips, weasel tails, porcupine quills, long tubes of the fur of various animals, and later even strips of cloth or ribbon. Chief Joseph’s war shirt (1) has long tassels most likely made of horsehair. However, the Hunkpapa Lakota shirt (8) has a fringe of human hair scalp locks.
Beadwork and quillwork were the domain exclusively of women, many of whom belonged to elite groups, like craft guilds in Europe, who were especially gifted quillers, bead artists, and embroiderers. The creation of war shirts and, especially the most delicate finish work, was regarded as sacred and their talent and designs were gifts from the Spirits and could endow the warrior with greater spiritual power.
Embellishments were created with pony beads (introduced first by white fur traders and named so because they were carried in packs on ponies), trade wool, cotton and silk, porcupine quills, claws or fangs of animals, feathers, hair, shells, many types of furs, hide cutwork, and natural dyes.
Some war shirts were decorated with pictures, known as pictographs, or symbols, depicting war deeds of the wearer, or even included elaborate narratives of coup or combat scenes that might cover the entire shirt.
War shirts were a symbol of social status and only those who had proven themselves worthy were allowed to wear such shirts. Among the Lakota, such warriors were called “the shirt wearers.” Warriors kept such precious garments clean in a saddle bag on their horse or carefully stored while in camp, to be worn only on suitable occasions. Later, when Indian delegations made special trips to forts, state capitols, or Washington D.C. to confer with white leaders to improve the plight of their people, they wore their best war shirts to indicate their dignity, social status, and power. A poignant, bittersweet tradition carried on into a sad, less victorious era of their civilization, but one that required great courage and perseverance. Chief Joseph made many such trips in a war shirt to Washington D.C. to meet with Presidents and Congress and advocate for these people.
The irony was not lost on such a great man. A full century before, his people had saved Lewis and Clark from death and starvation and showed them the Northwest Passage. One of the leaders who helped them was a fierce chieftain in Nez Perce's history named Hohâstillpilp (Red Grizzly Bear) but called “The Bloody Chief.” He was a mighty warrior and killer of the mortal enemy of the Nez Perce, the Shoshone. According to the journal of Meriwether Lewis, Red Grizzly Bear wore a war shirt with a “tippet” of some 30 scalps, thumbs, and fingers of enemies he had killed in battle.
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