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Porcupine quill decoration, seen here on a moccasin, almost disappeared in the 19th century because beads were easier to work with.

A strip of white remained along the edge of the wool cloth where it was gripped by a tool during the dying process.


key idea
The shirt tells the story of a changing way of life.

The traditions of a people change as their way of life changes. Life on the Plains brought many changes in the decades before this shirt was made. Some of them can be seen in this shirt.

One example is the beads used to add color and pattern to this shirt. Traditionally women crafted their designs using porcupine quills, colored with natural dyes. Glass beads from Italy and Bohemia, exchanged with European traders for pelts and hides, offered more colors and were easier to work with. By the late 1800s when this shirt was made, quillwork had almost disappeared from Plains Indian shirts. But artists continued to form the traditional patterns in the new material.

The bright red wool of the body of the shirt is another change. As European settlers moved westward throughout the 19th century, Plains Indians were crowded off their traditional territory. Hunting as a way of life became impossible and animal hides grew scarce. Wool cloth became another popular trade item. Lightweight and warm, the wool made a comfortable shirt. Like a shirt made of animal hide, this shirt is not sewn together at the sides. Notice how the white edge of the cloth, where the cloth was held in the factory as it was dyed, has been carefully saved to decorate the bottom edge of the shirt.

February 2004