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Sioux ceremonial garments.

Looking Carefully

The ceremonial war shirt (centerspread) was one of the prized possessions of a Sioux warrior. He probably placed it carefully in a rawhide storage case before leaving camp as part of a war party. Later, he put it on while performing a sacred ceremony designed to release the garment's medicine, or supernatural power that provided strong protection against the enemy. The decorations on the shirt also served to bolster his confidence and to instill respect from his adversaries, who would have understood the significance of its markings to some degree. These decorative elements were created with more than one type of art and served more than one purpose. The painted handprints and horizontal lines were placed on the surface of the leather by the shirt's owner to serve as visual records of his exploits in battle. The horizontal stripes across the body of the shirt are formed by thin parallel lines of black paint spaced approximately 1/2" apart. The spaces between these lines are painted red on one-half of the shirt and blue on the other half, the significance of which is not clear. It may be purely for decorative effect. The stripes are believed to chronicle the number of battles in which the warrior fought. The hand symbols are related to the importance of hand-to-hand combat. The red hand probably signifies that the warrior was injured in battle. The black print may indicate that an enemy was killed. It should be remembered that the meaning of Native-American symbols sometimes changed from tribe to tribe. The context of the symbol was also vital to its meaning. Similar symbols may be found on friendship blankets, where the hand may refer to familial relations.

This war shirt is representative of the ceremonial shirts worn by men of the central Plains. The side stitching is open along the lower half to facilitate riding and sitting. A decorative fringe hangs loosely along the length of each sleeve. Four long beaded bands, approximately 2 1/2" wide, are placed over each shoulder and down the top of each sleeve. The designs on these bands are symmetrical along both axes, a feature more common to Sioux patterns than any other tribe. The patterns consist of squares and rectangles created with navy blue, yellow, red and light blue beads on a field of light blue. It is believed these bands were presented to the warrior in appreciation for his role in the tribe's defense. Their symbolism was probably of a general tribal, rather than of a personal, nature.


Compare the warrior's shirt to the woman's dress (above), both of which were created by members of the Sioux tribe during the mid-nineteenth century. The simplicity of their geometric beaded designs were produced by the lazy-stitch method. The predominant beading method on the Plains, this was a procedure in which short strings of eight to ten beads were laid down and tacked only at the ends. This type of beading affected the style of design since it virtually eliminated the possibility of curved patterns. It was, however a natural descendant of the earlier quillwork, a traditional form of Plains decoration for centuries prior to the introduction of European beads. Eventually, beading became the most common type of surface decoration on the Plains, evolving into a highly specialized, skilled art form. The beadwork on these Sioux garments is crafted from tiny glass Venetian beads which reached the Plains around 1840.

Like the warrior's shirt, the decorations on this dress are highly symbolic in nature. The light-blue field on the yoke represents the waters of a lake and the reflection of the sky. The diamond shapes represent stars in the sky which are reflected in the water, symbolizing the worlds of the seen and the unseen--the physical and the spiritual. Centered at the base of the yoke is a U-shaped design depicting the curve of a turtle's breast. Sioux legend states that, when water covered the earth, the first human was carried on the back of a turtle; from this turtle shell, land was created. The turtle symbol is therefore associated with Mother Earth. it appeared frequently in the designs of garments for women and children, and was sometimes worn by men.

Cultural Background and History

Centuries ago, the people who came to be known as the Sioux made their home in the lands to the west of the Great Lakes in what is now Minnesota and parts of North and South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. They thought of themselves as Wichasha--"the natural humans," who had a great reverence for the natural world.

Among Plains tribes, the roles of men and women were strictly defined. Men were hunters and warriors; they also produced weapons, pipes and medicine bundles. Women gathered and prepared foods, raised children, prepared hides, made clothing, constructed teepees and created most of the tribe's possessions. This rigidness of gender roles pertained to all realms of life, including artistic expression. While women were permitted to use paint for decorative purposes, the art of figural painting was performed by men. Its purpose was to provide a visual record of important events within the tribe. The art of beading was performed by women, although men often contributed to the creation of the designs which were often inspired by images revealed in visions--communications from the spirit world. Designs were created with simplicity and abstraction of form in order to capture the pure essence of the subject. Women took great pride in the production of exquisite beadwork, for the maintenance of a high standard of quality was essential to the spiritual purpose of the work. Upon completion of her design, the Sioux woman was considered waka (sacred or mysterious) by others in the tribe and was held in very high regard. Skill in the crafts was as important to the Sioux woman as bravery in combat was to the warrior. Surface patterns in Sioux beadwork were always given careful aesthetic consideration because of their spiritual meaning. Many of these sacred patterns became part of a tribal repertoire and were handed down for generations. A true appreciation for these designs can be found only within the context of the object's meaning and function within Native-American society.

Key Concepts

* Gender roles were strictly defined within the society of Plains tribes. Beading was done only by women. A woman able to produce exquisite beadwork was highly respected by other members of her tribe.

* The surface patterns seen in Sioux beadwork were regarded as sacred because they were inspired by dreams or visions associated with the spirit world.

* Symbols used in Native-American art must be interpreted cautiously, keeping in mind tribal origin and cultural context. The creator of the object is often the only reliable source by which to determine the intention of the design.

* Lazy-stitch, the predominant method of beading on the Great Plains, affected the style of patterns because it eliminated the possibility of curves while lending itself to the creation of geometric design.

Suggested Activities

The following activities may be adapted to either elementary or secondary classes.

* Discuss the concept of natural pigments by asking students to think of things that come from nature and cause permanent stains on clothing (grass, berries, soot, etc.). Have students make paints from natural sources by blending a color source (e.g., crushed berries, ground charcoal) with a mixture of 50% white glue and 50% water. The suspension should be added slowly to achieve the desired color and consistency. Have students create a handprint with the paints, by tracing the exterior contour of a hand. Discuss the different meanings of this symbol in Native-American art. Ask students to think of other ideas that could be symbolized by the human hand. What natural resources, other than pigments, were used in the creation of the Sioux war shirt?

* Show examples of art representing what we consider to be the real world and art inspired by fantasy or dreams. Discuss the differences between them. Have students create an image motivated by their imagination or dreams. Have them transform these images into simple designs composed of basic geometric shapes. Students may explain the origin and symbolic meaning of the designs in a written paragraph or oral presentation. The class will discover that the designs that appear to be similar will actually stem from different origins and will express a variety of meanings.

* The preceding activity may be expanded in a variety of ways. Students might lay out their designs on graph paper, thus producing a pattern for beadwork. The beaded design could be constructed on a garment, while students explore the technique of lazy-stitch beading. Younger students may create their own shirts by cutting a pattern out of brown butcher paper, gluing the front and back together, and decorating the shirts with personal designs. A variety of media may be used, such as pony beads, feathers or paint made from natural pigments.

* Use the war shirt to spark a multicultural examination of military clothing. Compare the Sioux shirt with battle garments worn in Africa, Asia, Medieval Europe, the United States, etc. Discuss similarities and differences stemming from time periods, cultural values, symbolic meaning of decorations, materials and techniques of construction, etc. Students may design a new and different military uniform reflecting the culture of a fictitious country.

* Discuss the principles of geometric design, stressing that the surface decoration enhances the overall form of an object. Encourage students to create line drawings of simple utilitarian objects such as pots, carrying bags, knife sheaths, shields, etc. Using paint or colored markers, have students create designs that fill the designated area and complement the line of the object. Students might find additional images that illustrate the use of abstract or geometric surface patterns in a variety of media, such as weaving, baskets, quilts, pottery, metal and woodwork.


Maurer, E. M. Visions of the People:

A Pictorial History of Plains Indian

Life. Seattle: University of Washington

Press, 1993. Glubok, Shirley. The Art of the Plains

Indians. New York: Macmillan, 1973. Landau, Elaine. The Sioux. New York:

Franklin Watts, 1989. Mails, Thomas E. The Mystic Warriors

of the Plains. Second Edition. New

York: Mallard Press, 1991. Native American Educational Packet:

Art and Culture of the Great Plains

Region. Louisville, KY: The J. B. Speed

Art Museum, 1990.

Linda M. Young is a masters candidate in Art History at the University of Louisville. She has worked as a museum educator and writer of resource materials designed to foster collaboration between art specialists and classroom teachers.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:comparison for use in art class
Author:Young, Linda M.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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