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These designs may have had symbolic meaning when the shirt was made, or they may have been pleasing patterns.



key idea
The shapes and patterns of the shirt are rooted in tradition.

Although no two Plains Indian honor shirts are exactly alike, many have features in common. Decorated bands cross the shoulders and run down the arms of most shirts. Fringe hangs across the back and the arms. And many shirts have a decorated “bib” at the neck, like this one does.

These features recall the traditions of an earlier time. Plains Indian men did not typically wear shirts before the 19th century. Instead they wrapped themselves in robes of animal hide, wearing the fur against their skin. The earliest shirts were made by sewing two animal skins together. The front legs of the animals became the shirt’s sleeves. The skin of the rear legs dangled from the bottom of the shirt.

Some people think decorated bands were originally added to cover seams on robes where two pieces of hide joined together. This decoration was used on shirts too, even when there was no seam underneath. The “bib” at the neck of the shirt was skin from the animal’s head. These decorations continued to appear on Plains Indians shirts even when the shirt itself was made of other materials, like the wool of this shirt. Sometimes the decoration from a worn-out shirt was cut off and stitched on a new shirt—which might be the case with this one.

What do the patterns on the decorated bands represent? No one can say with certainty. The blue and white diamonds might be eagle feathers, white with black tips in nature. Eagle feathers were an important part of a warrior’s dress since the eagle was the most sacred animal for Plains Indians. The crossed bars on a white shield may be some symbol of strength. Or these patterns may simply have pleased the artist as she worked, inspired by the shapes she saw in other things around her.

February 2004