Northern Plains grass dance harnesses.
The harness was probably used as part of Northern Plains grass dance regalia in localized tribal dances popular with the Cree and Blackfoot in the days before this dance style became absorbed into mainstream intertribal powwow culture.
Recently, the author came across a second example of the same style of harness. So strikingly similar was it to the other, both in terms of construction and decoration, that the author was led to consider the likelihood not only that they came from the same Native community, but that they were possibly even the work of the very same craftworker or family.
As the original article was illustrated only by line drawings, it may prove of interest to readers of Whispering Wind to publish an updated version of the original 1985 article, with added color photographs, complete with descriptive notes giving details of the second harness as well.
The early years of the last century were times of considerable shortage in most Native communities. For a while, when times were hard, traditional materials such as brain-tanned buckskins and imported trade beads were beyond the means of many Native families. Nevertheless, it would seem that clothing accessories associated with the old-style Northern grass dance demonstrate an ingenuity of both design and choice of materials which can only be described as typically "Northern Plains" in flavor.
A new range of craftwork materials, largely of non-Native manufacture, was transformed in Native hands into something new, fresh and quite exciting. This demonstrates perhaps the most admirable ability of the Native artist--that of borrowing ideas (materials) from the non-Native world without an inherent loss of cultural integrity. The Native American's innate versatility and flair for innovation prove time after time that Native American culture is a constantly evolving force in modern North American society.
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Both harnesses illustrated, probably originate from one of the Plains Cree reserves in Saskatchewan, Canada, and date from the first half of the twentieth century. Both are of simple construction yet have a strong aesthetic appeal. They are in many ways typical of clothing material associated with early forms of the Northern Plains grass dance, characterized by sets of beaded rosettes, extensive use of store-bought fabrics, particularly velvet, and a wide variety of commercial fringe, silk ribbon, metal sequins, edging braid, and other trimmings.
Harness 1 (Figs. 1 & 2)
The first example has an overall length of 101.5 cm, and a maximum width of 29 cm. Two narrow strips of black velvet form the side straps of the harness, each measuring 61cm in length by 7.6 cm in width.
The velvet side straps are edged with green cotton edging tape, and each one is decorated with a total of four beaded felt rosettes, each measuring 5.7 cm in diameter. The beaded rosettes are positioned in matching pairs down the length of the velvet side straps--two pairs beaded with identical designs, another pair with an identical design with color variations, the final pair with an entirely different design. Bead colors are white (background), translucent red, medium blue, and greasy blue. The eight rosettes are trimmed with a commercial silver-colored tinsel, similar to that once used for Christmas decorations.
Below each beaded rosette is attached a doubled length of yellow satin ribbon, bifurcated at each end. Two of these ribbons, originally positioned below the second tier of beaded rosettes, have become detached and are now missing.
Attached to the lower end of each velvet side strap are double tassels of commercial brown trimming yarn, these obviously contributing to the visual effect of the dancer's body movements when the harness is in use.
At the center of the harness is a rectangular panel of couched overlay beadwork on canvas, backed with nothing more elaborate than recycled cardboard. The beaded panel measures 19 cm by 14 cm and consists of a bold quatrefoil motif in transparent dark red and greasy blue seed beads with outlining of small, dark blue bugle beads on a white background. Above the central quatrefoil design is a row of four triangles in greasy blue and mustard beads, edged in dark blue. This is duplicated below the quatrefoil motif, the sole difference being that translucent dark red beads are used in place of the mustard. The bead colors employed on the center panel are identical to those used on the beaded rosettes.
Suspended below the beaded panel is a dense fringe of red, blue and white wool yarn, about 12 cm in length.
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Harness 2 (Figs. 3 & 4)
The second harness has an overall length of 109 cm, the width 27.3 cm. It was reportedly purchased from a collection of effects belonging to a Northwest Mounted Police officer stationed on the Canadian prairies in the early part of the twentieth century.
Construction details are virtually identical to the first harness, except that the side straps are in this case made of a black satin type fabric rather than velvet. These are applied with a total of twelve beaded hide rosettes, six to each side. Of these, ten are identical, the lowermost pair larger and slightly different in design. Bead colors used for the ten matched rosettes are white (background), opaque red, translucent aqua blue, and black; for the lowermost rosettes, white (background), translucent red, dark blue, mustard, and yellow. No cotton edging tape is used on this example. Suspended from the center of the two bottom rosettes are pendants of alternating translucent green and red beads, terminating in eagle fluffy feathers.
Attached halfway down the outer edges of the side straps are black satin fabric waist ties which obviously served to hold the harness in position when worn. (Similar waist ties appear to have once been present on harness 1, but are now missing).
Joining the two side straps is an unusual canvas panel, cut out in a bold geometric design, the front surface fully beaded in couched overlay technique using small cylindrical bugle beads, emerald green in color, outlined with two rows of translucent red seed beads. The panel is backed with a check-patterned cotton fabric.
Harnesses of this type were worn in conjunction with a porcupine hair roach, armbands, cuffs, belt, collar and tie, leg bells, moccasins, and perhaps dyed long-johns. In more recent times, with the spreading popularity of the grass dance and chicken dance styles, these outfits comprise a long-fringed velvet cape and aprons.
A fully-beaded variant of this style of harness was also popular for a decade or so among certain Northern Plains groups, particularly the Plains Cree, and was the subject of a most interesting article by Dave Sager [Sager 2000]. Its use, however, may have been as much for parades as a component of dance regalia.
In his article, Sager tentatively explores the possible origins for this style of harness. Firstly, the fur chest ornament in vogue among most Northern Plains groups [Sager 2000: 4, 6, 12]; and secondly, the so-called 'war bag' with fully-beaded front, flap closure, and beaded straps, as made by the Plains Cree, and sometimes worn hanging down over the chest. [Sager 2000: 7]
An alternative theory propounded by the present author is that the fully-beaded style of harness perhaps derives from the layout of beaded strips and chest bibs on Northern hide shirts. The vertical shoulder strips and centrally positioned bib, (the latter often of rectangular or truncated triangular shape), seem to correspond with the elements of the harness in question.
Moreover, the early twentieth century vogue for attaching front and back shirt bibs at a relatively low position, at chest level rather than directly below the neckline, adds weight to this idea. This is a common feature of many shirts made by the Plains Cree, Stoney-Assiniboine and Blackfoot. (Fig. 5)
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Significantly, a total of three of the men pictured in Fig. 6 wear fully-beaded harnesses as an alternative to the traditional hide shirts worn by the majority of the others in the group. This suggests a possible correlation between the wearing of hide shirts and fully-beaded harnesses to the individuals in the photograph.
Careful study of the photograph reveals that all three of the men wearing harnesses, (second, third and fifth from the left), also wear cloth shirts underneath. Two of them wear beaded collar and necktie sets, as does the man in the center of the group, who is dressed in a fully-beaded vest and cloth shirt.
The style of harness under discussion in this article, with its arrangement of matched rosettes and central panel of beadwork, differs substantially in flavor from regalia worn by modern-day grass dancers. Who knows, perhaps this latest update on a vintage style of dance accessory might contribute to a renewed trend in today's pow wow arena!
Green, Richard. (1985). "A Northern Grass Dance Harness". Whispering Wind, 18:5. Reprinted in Crafts Annual 2 (1989). Written Heritage, Folsom, LA.
Sager, Dave. (2000). "Northern Beadwork Harnesses--Possible Beginnings". Whispering Wind, 30:6.
Howard, James. (1960). "Northern Plains Grass Dance Costume". American Indian Hobbyist, 27:1.