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A Life in Beads: The Stories a Plains Dress Can Tell

Native women have always had an important role in preserv­ing cultural traditions and values. The elaborately beaded dresses that Plains women made — and still make and wear — are both beautiful garments and outward expressions of their tribal identity and family values.

Historically, dresses were the canvases upon which Plains women expressed their creativity, marked significant events such as marriage or a family member’s military service, and displayed family pride. Images found on early painted muslin dresses were often meant to honor an individual’s accomplishments in battle, to acknowl­edge a male family member’s valor, or to recognize a sacrifice. In most cases, men painted the battle scenes on dresses. A dress with these images would only be worn by a family member: a wife, mother, sister, daughter, or granddaughter.

The Assiniboine and Sioux are two separate tribes from the Northern Plains region. They are just two nations out of more than 550 Native nations in the United States today who still adorn their clothing, accessories, and other implements with materials that reflect their surroundings and relate their beliefs and values. Each Native nation expresses itself in its own unique way — using different colors, symbols, designs, and mate­rials.

In the late 1600s, before modern-day borders were established, the Assiniboine migrated south to Montana from Canada. The Sioux gradually moved to the areas now known as Montana and the Dakotas from Canada and Minnesota beginning around the mid-1800s. The Assiniboine and Sioux found the area teeming with wildlife, including buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. These animals were important for their meat and for the hides that provided clothing and shelter. Dresses and shirts were mostly made out of deerhides and elkhides because the skins were thinner, while the thicker buffalo hides were used as robes or blankets.

The making of a dress took a great deal of work, which started with a hunt. Men hunted the animals from which the hides came; women did the work of preparing hides. Native people of the Plains have always main­tained a close relationship to the land and its resources, and expressed their respect for the animals they took. While on a hunt, they offered prayers in thanks for the life of the animal, its spirit, and for all that the animal would provide. Today, Assiniboine/Sioux men still say a prayer and offer tobacco — which helps send the prayer — and promise to make good use of the animal.

The women work to prepare the hides by removing the hair and tanning the skin. It is messy, hard work and requires muscles and brains—the muscles of the women, and the brains of the animal! In one tanning method, the hide is first soaked in water mixed with ashes for several days. Then it is put on a wooden frame and the hair is scraped off. Next, cooked brains of the animal are applied to the hide in order to soften it. The hide is then rinsed and stretched and pulled until — as one dressmaker says — your arms are "so tired, they feel like they will fall off!" This process is referred to as “brain-tanning” and is still done today to prepare hides that will be made into dresses, shirts, jackets, purses, and other items.

Native people of the Plains have long decorated their clothes and objects. Today, the heavily beaded dress is often thought of as the traditional style of clothing for Plains women. But before traders brought glass beads to the Plains, the materials used to decorate outfits for men and women came from the natural environment. Some of the earliest dresses and shirts were painted with natural materials, known as earth paints. Minerals and clays were among the first materials that would often be combined with buffalo fat and mixed in bowls made out of turtle shells to make paints. The hip bone of a buffalo – which, when soaked in water, becomes sponge-like – was sometimes used as a paintbrush.

The painted images found on many early hides and dresses show scenes of men on horses in battle or on a hunt. They tell stories of the bravery and honor of a husband, son, or father.

In addition to paints, people of the Plains used other natural materials to adorn their clothing. Most often the materials used were porcupine quills; animal teeth, such as those of elk; bone; bird or animal claws, such as those of bear; and shells that were most often acquired through trade with other tribes or non-Natives. The designs on dresses and the materials used reflect the people’s respect for the animals and the land.

Excerpted from "A Life In Beads—The Stories a Plains Dress Can Tell," a Native Knowledge 360° educational resource produced by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Reprinted with permission.

Images: Sioux dress with dentalium shell yoke, ca. 1900. • Sioux women preparing/tanning hides, ca. 1890. Photo by G. Ben Whittick. General Nelson A. Miles Collection, NMAI. Early “paintbrushes” made of porous buffalo bone. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. Painted Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux) cloth dress (detail), ca. 1890. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI.

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