Plains Indians War Shirts

War shirts are some of the most beautiful artifacts plains indians produced. They were not just interesting and attractive pieces of outerwear, but rather a sign of social status.

Before earning the right to wear a war shirt, an indian man had to prove himself as an outstanding warrior. Only those men who showed wisdom and strength, repeatedly  unprecedented bravery in combat, were known for their selfless character, concern for others and the welfare of the tribe were honoured with the right to wear this kind of shirt.

Hidatsa chief Two crows painted by George Catlin in 1832. He wears spledid and decorated war shirt. Only distinguished warriors were allowed to wear such garment.
Hidatsa chief Two crows painted by George Catlin in 1832. He wears spledid and decorated war shirt. Only distinguished warriors were allowed to wear such garment.
Blackfeet war shirt decorated with beaded stripes and tubes of ermine pelts. NMNH.
Blackfeet war shirt decorated with beaded stripes and tubes of ermine pelts. NMNH.

For example, the Lakota men, who were given such a right were called “the shirt wearers ”. If such a „shirt wearer“ showed weakness, cowardice or manifested some character flaw, he could be deprived of the right.

A man wearing his war shirt did not simply put on a piece of clothing, but also the insignia of a certain respect, showing his role and social status in the tribe. Period photographs of indian delegations to the white man’s world (mostly in Washington) show the chiefs, who are almost always dressed in war shirts and this indicates their social status within their tribe.

Oglala Lakota chief Red cloud was one of Lakota "shirt wearers". Photographed by John Hillers in 1880 (on the left). His war shirt (on the right) is now in Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody.

War shirt making

Making a war shirt was considered a sacred activity. Such a shirt was considered to be endowed with  spiritual power and strength. This power, or energy, was partly passed onto the shirt during the process of creating it, but most important was the way the members of the tribe perceived it: as a token of a social status associated with certain characteristics of the wearer. This power then passed onto the person who owned and wore the shirt.

Crow woman working on leggings for her husband. Making of garents was exclusively womans job.
Crow woman working on leggings for her husband. Making of garents was exclusively womans job.

Construction

The shirts were mostly made out of tanned hides, most often white-tailed deer, pronghorn or bighorn sheep. Two to four hides were needed for one shirt, depending on the particular pattern. Both the front and rear part of the shirt always consisted of one hide each, other hides were used for the sleeves. 

The front and rear pieces were connected only at the top on the shoulders, hanging loosely down the wearer’s front and back. Originally, the shape of a war shirt respected natural contours of the animal’s hide, and legs often remained intact and were visible on the shirt. 

After contacts with Europeans, the plains indians’ garments started to change its shape somehow, losing its natural animal outlines and becoming more and more “angular”

Hunkpapa Lakota quilled war shirt with human hair scalp locks. NMAI.
Hunkpapa Lakota quilled war shirt with human hair scalp locks. NMAI.
NezPerce war shirt with quilled strips and leather fringes.
NezPerce war shirt with quilled strips and leather fringes.

The four strips

The prominent features of each war shirt were four embroidered strips, decorated with beadwork, quillwork or a combination of both techniques. The beaded or quilled strips were made separately and then stitched onto the finished shirt: the two longer strips decorated the shoulders and the two shorter ones were stitched onto the sleeves.

Blackfeet war shirt, before 1850. It has four quilled strips and quilled human scalp locks. Pitt Rivers Museum.
Blackfeet war shirt, before 1850. It has four quilled strips and quilled human scalp locks. Pitt Rivers Museum.
Cheyenne war shirt with four beaded strips.
Cheyenne war shirt with four beaded strips.

Quillwork and beadwork

The beadwork and quillwork was exclusively a women’s job. To make such elaborate embroidery was immensely time consuming, because this was really painstakingly detailed work. Making just several square inches of embroidery took hours, and indian women needed several months to finish these four strips.

The beaded or quilled pieces were sometimes the result of the collective work of several women. Women were particularly proud of their embroidery skills and the most skilled embroiderers were highly respected in the tribe. In some tribes, there existed some special groups of female embroiderers, especially quillworkers (something similar to the craft guilds in Europe) and only members of that group could participate in this craft, which was considered to be a sacred art

The older and more experienced women supervised the younger members to keep sacred tribal patterns. The patterns were not created arbitrarily, but the patterns were followed very strictly, as there was a belief that those patterns came from higher powers and were the gift of Spirits, containing spiritual power.

Beaded and quilled Crow war shirt stripe. British museum, London.
Beaded and quilled Crow war shirt stripe. British museum, London.
Detail of Northern Plains war shirt shoulder strip quillwork. Ledermuseum Offenbach.
Detail of Northern Plains war shirt shoulder strip quillwork. Ledermuseum Offenbach.

Scalp locks, ermine tubes, hide fringes

The shirts were very often embellished with scalp locks, ermine pelts or hide fringes running alongside the four embroidered strips. Decorating with scalps locks was probably the most widely used practice. This is why these wars shirts are sometimes called „scalp shirts“.

The scalps lock were made of thin strands of human hair, wrapped with procupine quills or woolen yarn and fastened to the shirt with a leather thong. Some shirts even bore several hundred of these scalp strands.

Interpretations of the significance of these scalps vary. According to some interpretations these were the scalps of killed enemies, however the Lakota people maintain, they were hair locks from their own tribe members. In cases such as these, wearing the scalp shirts in fact expressed their responsibilities for their own people and tribe.

War shirt that belonged to Oglala Sioux chief Red cloud. It is decorated with beaded strips and human hair scalp locks.
War shirt that belonged to Oglala Sioux chief Red cloud. It is decorated with beaded strips and human hair scalp locks.
Lakota quilled war shirt with human hair scalp locks. Masco collection.
Lakota quilled war shirt with human hair scalp locks. Masco collection.

The use of ermine skin tubes is also interpreted in various ways. According to some sources, a shirt embellished with ermine skins enjoys an even higher status than a „scalp shirt“, while no particular significance was ascribed to leather fringes.

Blackfeet war shirt decorated with ermine tube pelts. NMNH.
Blackfeet war shirt decorated with ermine tube pelts. NMNH.
Crow war shirt decorated with beaded strips and leather fringes.
Crow war shirt decorated with beaded strips and leather fringes.

War shirt painting

Some shirts are endowed with extraordinary power and beauty through painting with earth pigments. The color patterns varied, depending on the tribe, period or place of origin. The Lakota people, for example, often painted their shirts with two colors, yellow and blue or yellow and green. Other tribes left their shirts undyed or used only a single color, with a shaded effect, where the color was gradually darkened from the bottom towards the upper part. The most often used colors were brown, green and red, with marginally used colours being blue or black.

Nez Perce warrior No horns on his head with beautifuly red painted war shirt with pictographs.
Nez Perce warrior No horns on his head with beautifuly red painted war shirt with pictographs.
Beautiful Blackfeet war shirt (pre-1850) painted with red and brown earth pigments. Museum of man and nature.
Beautiful Blackfeet war shirt (pre-1850) painted with red and brown earth pigments. Museum of man and nature.

Pictograms

Some war shirts could be decorated with pictographs and symbols, which depicted the brave war deeds of its owner. For example, each symbol of pipe represented one war party leadership, one horse shoe meant one stolen horse, each figure symbol represented a victim that the war shirt owner killed in combat. Red stains symbolized the wounds sustained in battle and subsequent bleeding. Vertical lines symbolized numbers of counted “coups”.

Pictographic accounts on the war shirt depict battle and combat scenes where its owner took part and showed heroism. Mostly they are scenes of enemies being killed or wounded, counting a coup, yanking a weapon out of an enemy, helping his fellows, horse theft or facing enemy fire.

Plains Ojibwa chief The Six painted by George Catlin. He wears quilled war shirt with battle scene pictographs depicting his war deeds.
Plains Ojibwa chief The Six painted by George Catlin. He wears quilled war shirt with battle scene pictographs depicting his war deeds.
Crow war shirt with depicted war deeds. NMAI.
Crow war shirt with depicted war deeds. NMAI.

In battle

In battle it was important for a warrior to wear his war shirt, to show his significance and status in his tribe. Each warrior tried to “count a coup” or kill an enemy wearing a war shirt, because this brought him more fame than overcoming an inexperienced young man without one. 

Mounted Crow warriors wearing war shirts.
Mounted Crow warriors wearing war shirts.
Plains indians battle scene. Photo Throssel.
Plains indians battle scene. Photo Throssel.

Gift, trade or exchange

In some cases, the shirts could be the subject of a gift (often diplomatic), trophy, exchange or trade. For example, when a warrior was killed with his war shirt on, the winner usually kept it. It is known that sometimes indian delegations exchanged gifts, including war shirts. At other times, a war shirt was even given as a present or sold to a white officer. In intertribal trade, the war shirts could be the subject of trade or exchange.

Slow bull was an Oglala Lakota chief, who, along with Red Cloud signed the Fort Laramie treaty in 1868. He wears a war shirt, that is most likely of Crow origin. On the left Slow bulls wears this shirt when photographed by Alexander Gardner in 1868 in Fort Laramie. He also wears Crow leggings. In the middle Slow bull wears the same shirt sometimes in 1870s. The same shirt photographed nowadays is on the right. Most likely it was a diplomatic gift from Crows, as Crow also participated in Fort Laramie meeting in 1868. Crows and Lakotas were traditional enemies.
Slow bull was an Oglala Lakota chief, who, along with Red Cloud signed the Fort Laramie treaty in 1868. He wears a war shirt, that is most likely of Crow origin. On the left Slow bulls wears this shirt when photographed by Alexander Gardner in 1868 in Fort Laramie. He also wears Crow leggings. In the middle Slow bull wears the same shirt sometimes in 1870s. The same shirt photographed nowadays is on the right. Most likely it was a diplomatic gift from Crows, as Crow also participated in Fort Laramie meeting in 1868. Crows and Lakotas were traditional enemies.

War shirts today

Nowadays there are quite a lot of preserved original 19th century shirts from the period of the flourishing buffalo culture. Most of them are located in private collections and museums, where we can admire them.

Sometimes, an original war shirt can be offered for sale on the market, but these are usually auctioned items in some prestigious auction houses. The price of such an artifact start at a price of about $100.000 and may rise much higher for particularly valuable specimens. A few years ago, a war shirt with documentation that proved it belonged to the famous Nez Perce chief Josef was sold for almost $900.000,- .

A war shirt, that was proved to belonged to legendary Nez Perce chief Joseph was sold for $877,500 in 2012.
A war shirt, that was proved to belonged to legendary Nez Perce chief Joseph was sold for $877,500 in 2012.