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Northern Plains loop necklaces.

One article of traditional adornment commonly seen in old photographs of tribes of the Northern Plains is the loop necklace. These were in vogue among the Blackfeet of both Montana and Alberta, as well as with other Northern and Plateau groups.

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In many cases, this distinctive breast ornament seems to have been worn in place of the bone 'hairpipe' breastplate favored by tribes of the Central and Southern Plains, although both types were popular among groups such as the Crow, Blackfeet, Flathead, and Plateau tribes including the Umatilla, Nez Perce and Spokane. Loop necklaces also became fashionable for a time amongst certain Sioux groups in North Dakota, particularly at Devil's Lake (Fort Totten) and Standing Rock reservations

Its origins, as with so many items of Native dress, are uncertain. The inspiration may derive from the elaborate braid loops on early military uniforms.

Generally speaking there are two main types of loop necklace-Type 1, with loops of beaded buckskin thong, rolled cloth, or cord; and Type 2, with loops of polished discoidal shell or bone beads, strung on heavy thread or sinew.

Type 1 was most prevalent among the Blackfeet, Stoney, Sarcee, Plains Cree, and Plains Ojibwa; Type 2 among the Crow, Flathead, and Plateau groups. The main focus of this article is the bead-wrapped style of loop necklace favored by the Northern Plains groups.

Because of the fragile nature of their construction, relatively few early specimens of this type of breastplate have survived to the present day. Two examples of Type 1 are presented in this article, both from the author's private collection. The first example dates from the late nineteenth century, the second from the early decades of the twentieth.

Late nineteenth century photographs reveal that such breastplates were constructed of an average of 6-14 loops, strung between narrow strips of thick commercial harness leather. The precise number seems to vary according to individual taste, as well as availability of beads. The very earliest examples appear to be quite short in length, constructed of relatively few loops as in Fig. 3. By the twentieth century, however, there was a vogue for oversize loop necklaces, sometimes comprising in excess of twenty loops. (Figs. 4, 5 & 6).

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An early example of a Northern Plains loop necklace, probably Blackfeet, is illustrated in Figs. 1a & 1b. Probably dating from the 1880s, it consists of twelve bead-wrapped loops in turquoise blue seed beads on a base of rolled cloth. The beaded rolls are each approximately 1/4" in diameter, the beads strung on commercial cotton thread. The loops increase progressively in length from top to bottom of the breastplate; the uppermost measuring 10 1/2 inches, the lowermost 17 1/2 inches.

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Threaded exactly at the center of each loop are two large glass trade beads, transparent cranberry red in color. At each end, at the point where the loop is attached to the 12-inch strip of commercial black harness leather, is one hollow brass trade bead.

To the outer side of the harness leather strips are attached long fringes of smoked buckskin, each measuring between seven and ten inches in length.

Suspended from the second beaded loop from the top is a length of braided black human hair, approximately 19 inches long, attached by means of a buckskin lace, decorated with large black glass trade beads. The hair is bound at the top with another piece of buckskin thong. A total of 3 inches of the upper part of the braid is enveloped in ermine skin, now completely denuded of fur. (Fig.1b).

The loop necklace is tied around the wearer's neck by means of twisted double buckskin thongs, attached to the top of the harness leather strips. Further buckskin laces, attached half-way down each harness leather strip, fasten around the back at mid-chest level.

A second and more recent example is illustrated in Fig.2. Dating circa 1930, it is probably Blackfeet in origin, and comprises a total of seven bead-wrapped leather loops, again strung between two strips of harness leather. Beads used are of Czech type, strung on commercial cotton thread. The colors consist of white, opaque red, and medium blue.

The construction of this second necklace, however, differs significantly from the first example. The loops, in this case, are made from a continuous length of harness leather thong, threaded directly through holes in the harness leather side straps. Although the length of these side straps measures only 4 1/2 inches, the lowermost beaded loop is actually formed as a continuation of the side straps. The beaded loops graduate in length from 10 inches at the top to 18 inches at the bottom. The buckskin side fringe is absent. The side straps of some loop necklaces are further adorned with pairs of pink conch shell discs, or vertical rows of dome-headed brass trade tacks.

Around the mid-twentieth century, a new fashion developed when dancers from some Canadian Plains reserves began incorporating loop necklaces between the vertical strips of their dance harnesses.

Loop necklaces of the type discussed enjoy continued popularity to this day, making an impressive addition to any traditional Northern style outfit.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Whispering Wind magazine in 1983 [Green 1983], and is published here in a revised format, expanded, and updated with color photographs.

Reference

Richard Green, "A Northern Plains Loop Necklace". Whispering Wind, 16:2 (1983).
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Author:Green, Richard
Publication:Whispering Wind
Article Type:Reprint
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Words:905
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