Native American Dresses - The Dress Indeed Makes the Woman!

Native American Dresses - The Palette

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Native peoples experienced traumatic changes to their traditional lifestyle and the land and resources that had once sustained them. Some dances honored and sought to protect this way of life. Victory dances allowed women to recognize the sacrifices of warriors. During these dances, the Native American dresses depicted men engaged in warfare or horse-capture.

Traditionally, men made pictographic paintings on tipis and tipi liners that honored an individual's accomplishments in battles or horse raids. A dress decorated with these scenes would have been work only by a close family member, possibly the wife or sister of the deceased warrior being depicted. These dresses were a way for a woman to publicly acknowledge her family's valor during victory dances.

The Ghost Dance of the late 1880s inspired dress designs that communicated opposition to desperate conditions.

See my the page on the Ghost Dance.

Some dances reflected accommodation to other changes. In the 1850s, Native Americans began to be confined to reservations and reserves in both the U.S. and Canada. Both governments banned ceremonies and dances except on patriotic or Christian holidays. These occasions became a focal point for many communities, generating an explosion of new and modified dress designs.

Woman made elaborate Native American clothing and dresses for such celebrations, turning the enforced idleness of confinement to their advantage by using the time to experiments with new styles and designs such as squared sleeves and American flags.

Around 1885, real-life motifs became popular beading themes for men's jackets, vests and pipe bags. Male figures in war bonnets, horses and the American flag were common. Outside influences account for designs which were beaded to order for non-Indian patrons.

The Kiowa Battle Dress

Worn exclusively by female relatives of the elite warriors of the Ton-Kon-Da (Kiowa Black Leggings Society, an old military society), the Battle Dress uses the color black to announce and celebrate a great victory over an important enemy. It is not proper for a man to brag on his war deeds - it is the woman's responsibility to dress and dance to honor him.

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