"More than mere articles of clothing; they [dresses] are canvases for the expression of tribal culture and personal identity. At each stage of life, exquisitely sewed clothing enriched the lives of its makers and those for whom they cared. "
- Description of the Native American dress as related in the book Identity by Design
The making of a new, elaborately decorated special occasion dress was once (and for some it still is) a time for families to show their love and pass on their artistic and cultural traditions to future generations.
Today, these beautiful dresses also relate the dynamic histories of the Native American people and their amazing ability to continuously revitalize their craft.
Looking back upon the history of Native dresses, the myriad of materials (and constant influx of new elements) incorporated into these dresses reflects the epic story of a people.
Animal Hides: Early dresses were once made from the most abundant natural resource available at the time; for many of the Plains Tribes, this was the hide of an animal (deer, elk, Big Horn Sheep, or buffalo).
Although the hide dresses in themselves were exquisite, the artistic nature of the Native people pushed them to find ways to further embellish the dresses.
Porcupine Quills: The quills of the porcupine provided this creative outlet. Working with quills was a highly regarded skill; the designs identified the individual artist and also their level of expertise (some techniques were only reserved for the highly skilled). Quillwork also required patience and a great deal of prep time.
Elk Teeth & Shells: Beautiful and highly prized due to their rarity, some materials, like elk teeth (there are only 2 ivory teeth per elk) and shells (not readily available in many areas…especially on the Plains), symbolized stature and a man's ability to take care of his family since these items could only be acquired either through many successful hunting expeditions or by having the means to trade.
When placed on a dress, these rare items expressed the family's wealth, as well as their love and devotion for one another.
Glass Beads: European contact introduced glass beads into the Native artistic palette. Since glass beads were much more durable than the delicate porcupine quills, used many of the same skills as quillwork, required no prep time, and gave artists a kaleidoscope of colors to work with, many Native artists quickly adopted these beads into their work.
Metals: Tin cones and bells were also highly prized decorative elements acquired through trade with Europeans. The use of metals also introduced a new element to the dresses with their crisp, metallic sound as the wearer moved.
Cloth: Another product of European contact, manufactured cloth was later adopted as a dress making material as animal hides became scarce due to the establishment of the Reservation System.
Some Native dress makers used richly colored wool trade cloth from European factories, but others were forced to use the more readily available cloth from things like burlap flour sacks.
But, regardless of the kind of materials used during this period, these dresses retained a sense of beauty as Native artisans continued to experiment with and embellish these special garments for their loved ones, as well as ensure their family traditions were passed on to future generations.