1870's QUILLED SHIRT REPORT
by Collin Taylor Ph.D
Shirts of this style have a long and interesting history which seems to extend back to the early 1800s or earlier. For example when the trader Francois-Antoine Larocque travelled with a party of Crow Indians in the summer of 1805 he described their magnificent ceremonial decorated shirts as "composed of 3 [antelope] skins, 2 making the body and one the sleeves. The skins were joint together on the shoulder only and the sleeves also which are left open under the pit of the arm; the neck of one of the skins hangs on the breast and the other behind". As with Crow leggings he said that the shirts were ornamented with "beads, porcupine quills, horse and human hair'.
We can only speculate as to the actual quill technique employed on the garments described by Larocque. However, a very early Crow specimen which fits this description and which is now in the Historical Museum in Berne is actually embellished with arm and shoulder bands which are worked in the plaited technique. This specimen is shown in Figure 1. Although it was transferred to Berne in 1838 it is probable that the shirt together with several other items in the collection are somewhat earlier than this. Some of the Berne material may have been in the old Clark Museum in St. Louis and acquired by William Clark in the period 1802-1837. An associated painted buffalo robe also exhibits a band of plaited quillwork running along the middle of the robe. This band is of more usual type having two wide parallel lanes of plaited quillwork and beaded at the edges.
Another very fine shirt exhibiting similarities to the Berne piece was collected by Prince Maxmillan of Wied in 1833. This particular shirt is now in the ethnographical collections of the Linden Museum in Stuttgart Germany. The shirt has both the shoulders and arms embellished with plaited quillwork and, as is usual with this technique and period, there is a single lane on the arms and double lanes over the shoulder - in this respect it is a slightly more sophisticated version than the Beme shirt.
Other specimens in the ethnographical collections and from the pre 1850 period suggest that the plaited quillwork technique, together with the so-called quill-wrapped horsehair method was much favoured by the Crow. Whilst as yet unproven a hypothesis is that it was the River Crow who favoured the plaited technique whilst the Mountain Crow favoured quill-wrapped technique.
At this point it should be noted the River Crow were close relatives of the Hidatsa and often visited them to trade at their villages on the Missouri River. In later years - particularly from circa 1870 - the Hidatsa were well-known for their skill in producing plaited quillwork.
One of the earliest (and perhaps the finest) illustrations of a traditional style of plaited quill shirts was produced by the Swiss artist, Carl Bodmer in 1834. This magnificent portrait (Figure 3) is of the Hidatsa Pehriska-Ruhpa has been greatly admired over the years; however only limited attention has been given to the nature of the quill techniques depicted by Bodmer. So carefully has the painting been executed that not only can the method of applying the quills be clearly seen but the pony beaded edging so characteristic of these early shirts is carefully rendered. So too is the shape of the neckflap; the triangular fold of buckskin from which it is made has been lined with red cloth and then edged with white pony beads. Later styles would change from a triangular to rectangular shape but the former is a definite feature of these earlier styles of shirt.
The rendering of patterns within plaited quillwork required great skill and ingenuity since the criss-crossing of the quills limited the nature and size of the decorative motif (Figure 4). Thus, prior to circa 1850 the patterns were made up of numerous diamond shaped elements. Sometimes materials other than quills were employed to give a variation in colour. As Bill Holm has recently recorded he identifies the brown material as the rhizome of the horsetail (Equisetum sp.). Previously this was simply described as "maidenhair fern". Coloured threads were also incorporated into the pattern.
The above description mainly centres on pre 1850 shirts displaying the plaited quill technique. Almost certainly these were the "exquisite garments" (as Maxmillan described them - see below) and were of Crow make.
Maxmillan recorded of the Crow in the summer of 1833. "Crow women are very skilful in various kinds of work, and their shirts and dresses of bighorn leather, embroidered and ornamented with dyed porcupine quills are particularly handsome." He further observed that these garments were often exquisitely ornamented and were popular trade (or gift) items to closely related tribes such as the Hidatsa.
Such garments were widely distributed by trade across the Plains. They were brought into the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara villages by the nomadic River and Mountain Crow who had ready access to the rich resources of present day Montana and Wyoming which teemed with buffalo, elk, antelope, white and black tailed deer and, to the north and west, the big horn sheep. Products of the chase for those of horticulture were thus exchanged at the Missouri River village for several generations.
This pattern has been established due to the early and changing history of the tribes in the Missouri River region. Strung along the river bank for hundreds of miles were earth lodge villages occupied by Pawnee and Omaha in the South and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara further north (in what is now present day North and South Dakota). It was a culture dominated by people of Siouan linguistic stock (Hidatsa and Mandan) but Caddoan (Arikara) and later (after ca 1750) Algonquians came to the region from the east - the Cheyenne.
About 1600 (possibly earlier) a group of Hidatsa split off from the main body and lured by the lush and rich pastures of the Plains moved west to become the so-called Mountain Crows. (They were accompanied by a few Mandan families). This group had considerable impact on the indigenous inhabitants of the region - mainly the Shoshone - with whom they intermarried.
The Mountain Crow accommodated some of the sacred sites such as the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Northern Wyoming and also made friends with the Nez Perce of present day Idaho. Later they were joined by other Hidatsan groups who, as equestrian nomads, became known as the River Crow. It was these two groups who maintained trade contacts with the Mandan and Hidatsa in the earth lodge villages on the Missouri River. The rich animal materials available to the Crow led to the development of fine decorated clothing and this, as was so well reported by Maxmillan (and mentioned earlier), was traded to the Missouri River people. The Cheyenne who maintained close trade links with the Arikara as well as the Mandan and Hidatsa, brought in fime tanned and decorated buffalo robes for which they were famous. They also acted as middle men trading to the west and south.
Thus, the Missouri River villages became important centres for trade; fine decorated costume being particularly important. Ideas from the far western tribes much as the Nez Perce, were transmitted across the Plains through a complex network (Figure 5). From this vast pool of expertise and innovations emerged distinctive forms of decorated costume embellished with various quill technique - not least quill wrapped horsehair and plaited quillwork.
The devastating smallpox epidemic of 1837, however, markedly changed the trade patterns in the region. Within a generation or so the Hidatsa rather than the Crow progressively became the producers of a certain style of quillwork. That sewn in the plaited technique being much favoured. A particular type ultimately became identified as the "Fort Berthold" style.
Methods used to produce the patterns were also beginning to change. The motifs were now done in a different technique to the main background. This may be illustrated by reference to a shirt collected in the 1860s and now in the Smithsonian Institution (Figure 6). Here a separate diamond-like pattern is used, being worked in a different quill technique. The neckflap of the shirt, as with the earlier styles is still triangular. However, it is less elaborately embellished and is no longer integral to the shirt itself In contrast the Beme shirt discussed earlier appears to have utilized the headskin / neckskin of the animal (antelope or deer) as the flap.
The White Powder Shirt
The shirt shown in Figure 7 was originally owned by a Northern Cheyenne warrior by the name of White Powder. He is shown wearing the shirt in a photograph that was taken about 100 years ago (Figure 8). It was collected by the artist Joe Scheuerle directly from White Powder at Busby Montana in 1911. The transaction was recorded in an amusing sketch of the occasion (Figure 9).Scheuerle had apparently offered White Powder $15 "for his fine warshirt" but when his wife saw it she complained that the price was too high. White Powder, however, stood his ground and finally told her that the "bargain was made with white man [not white woman]!" Scheuerle recorded "We had a good laugh over this - I got the shirt."
Scheuerle also recorded that White Powder was in the Custer Battle in 1876 - one of the few Northern Cheyenne warriors still alive on the reservation who had been involved in that tragic encounter.
Of interest is that the shirt has a crude identification inside it which reads "Sioux 1911". This, however, is clearly erroneous unless White Powder himself said that it was of Sioux make when he parted with it. We do not know the full subsequent history of this shirt. Possibly it was loaned by Scheuerle over the years for exhibition purposes, the labelling "Sioux" painted on the shirt by curatorial staff. One can assume that there have been a few additions / repairs by successive handlers; nevertheless, the main structural and decorative characteristics of a garment well over a century old are intact.
Another photograph of the shirt being worn is shown is Figure 10. This is Scheuerle with his wife and daughter and it was probably taken in about 1920. The three-feather pattern worked in the quilled band and the . neckflap may be clearly seen.
After Scheuerle's death in 1940 his collection was dispersed by his widow and the shirt together with several other items was acquired in the 1950s by the Plains scholar Dick Pohrt of Michigan and then in 1965 by exchange, the outfit was transferred to CF. Taylor. Given the age of the shirt both decorative and structural elements - the bands, flap and buckskin of the body and arms were in good condition. Some quillwork on the shoulder bands (at the back) exhibit slight moth damage and a few quills are unravelling in places on the neckflaps. Some ties and sewn sections were stiffened or broken and the painting had faded. In totality, however, the major essential features of the shirt, as White Powder (and others) presented it in their portraits.
The structural poncho features are particularly impressive and characteristic of the traditional Plains ceremonial shirts; this fact and several other features (the painting and neckflap) set it firmly aside from the normal "run of the mill" Fort Berthold style. The justification for these conclusions are discussed below.
Several of the excellent portraits by Scheuerle illustrate his concern for fine detail (Figure 11). Thus, he shows very clearly the line of demarcation down the centre of the quilled bands which are as already discussed a defmite feature of the plaited technique. He shows too the separately worked feather design patterns worked in a different technique together with the smaller coloured diamonds and triangle within the main decorative element. Whilst these features document this particular shirt rather well there are additional elements shown which beyond question identify it as the one collected from White Powder. Further, several of these features - as suggested earlier- make this garment something more, and certainly distinct from the "Fort Berthold style" shirt. Thus, the unusual - but not altogether unique neckflaps are accurately rendered; green on one side and red on the other, and with a thong at the bottom which is partially wound with mauve quills. The flaps have been made by wrapping strips of rawhide with quills, not unlike the fringe at the bottom of pipe-bags. The body of the shirt was originally daubed with red and blue paint and this is shown accurately in the portraits of both White Powder and Black Bird (Figure 12). The red cloth (?) shown at the neck in some cases is not in evidence on the shirt today - and never was whilst in my possession.
Constant use - it clearly had a good deal of exposure and was worn by many individuals (including Scheuerle himself) - possibly caused deterioration over the years and it was removed. Alternately perhaps an undergarment was worn with the shirt (?) (which certainly appears to be the case in the White Powder and Goes Ahead portraits which may be the best and most accurate renderings of this shirt). This would be a logical step considering that Scheuerle was inclined to dress up his subjects in this particular garment (Figure 13).
One other rendering of this (?) shirt is of No Bear the Gros Ventre (Figure 14). Although the strips are similar to the White Powder shirt the bands are edged with extensive fringes of hair, which are not a feature of the White Powder specimen. In passing it is of interest to note that the neck has a red cloth edge similar to that shown (at times) on the White Powder shirt. Could it be that the artist had more than one shirt to work with in finishing his portraits and used some "artistic licence" and shifting the attractive features of one to the other?
As has been discussed the neckflaps are a very unusual feature of this shirt. Of literally hundreds of Plains Indian shirts which I have examined over the years very few have exhibited this style. Interestingly a photograph taken by Fiske of the Sioux warrior Black Bear (Figure 15) shows him wearing a shirt with this style of neckflap. It is not, however, the White Powder shirt and differs in several respects having fringes at the cuffs and square cut at the bottom of the shirt. It also appears to have an ermine skin attached at the bottom of the flap. (Such features were of course attached to shirts indicative of the fighting ability of the wearer weasels were brave and hard to capture and kill, desirable qualities of any warrior). The arm and shoulder bands unquestionably worked in the plaited technique. Evidence suggests - as has been discussed - that the Hidatsa were particularly renowned for quillwork of this sort. The technique with separately worked patterns - seems to have "flowered" in the period circa 1880. Shirts so embellished were widely distributed across the Plains and some were even made of muslin with the quilled bands attached across the shoulders and down the arms. Most were "tailored", the legs of the animal were removed in the tanning process, edges were seldom fringed and the neckflap was sewn to the body of the shirt. These are the ones it seems which come from the Fort Berthold region. Typical of this style is that shown in the photograph of Eric Douglas (Figure 16) which subsequently went to a private collector being exchanged from the Museum to the late Russell Robinson of the Tower of London.
Other shirts, however, and this includes the White Powder garment, are not in this category. Thus, a shirt in the collections of the Glenbow Foundation in Calgary a much coveted and displayed specimen - is decorated with typical Fort Berthold strips (Figure 17). It differs, however, quite markedly from the typical Berthold style in that the painting on the body of the shirt, the quilled disc open neck with ties, lack of neckflap, painting and fringing are distinctively Blackfeet. Likewise another plaited quilled shirt in the Taylor collection (Figure 18) exhibits several features (beadwork, distinctive cut edges and neckflap) which the late Dennis Lessard firmly identified it as a garment also from the Blackfeet. In our discussions of shirts of this type we formed a firm impression that sets of quilled shirt and legging bands were relatively common trade items rather than the entire shirts. The purchase could then sew such fine embellishments to the garment whose subsequent additional decoration reflect - have the "stamp" - a particularly tribal style cut.
The White Powder shirt is of this type / class. The shirt itself, cut (poncho), neckflaps, ties, painting are Cheyenne (possibly Sioux ?) the quilled strips Hidatsa. Certainly the poncho-like aspect of the shirt with the clear evidence of the deer legs at the bottom of the shirt and the slight fringing at the lower edge is not a structural feature of the Hidatsa shirts at this period.
Close links by the Cheyenne with the Missouri River tribes is well known and briefly discussed earlier. Possibly the White Powder shirt underlines the extended period that the Cheyenne traded with the Hidatsa. For example an early photograph (ca 1858) of a Cheyenne group (Figure 19), shows without question the shoulder and arm bands of a shirt worn by one of the members of the group as being decorated with plaited qulled strips. Possibly the Cheyenne did this style of quillwork at this early period, but at this point of time in my researches I am inclined to think that this is not the case. What it almost certainly illustrates to my mind is the web of complex trade patterns across the Plains where expertise and resources of one group were made available to another with mutual benefit to both.
A later shirt which was said to have been collected at Sand Creek (1867) is described as having 'Berthold strip" decorations. It is firmly in the category of the Scheuerle shirt in that it is of the poncho type having the legs of the deer, fringed at the ends intact (Figure 20). Such garments evoke so much with regard to Plains Indian culture and history.
The "father" of American anthropology Lewis Henry Morgan once observed of Indian artifacts that they were "silent memorials" and although silent they could "speak" more eloquently than all human description.
This (very preliminary) study of the plaited quill decorated shirts underlines the Morgan contention. It is just one of the many artifacts which can give us insights into a culture long since gone. All we need to do is learn how to "read" them!!
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