Why are North Indians overclothed

The plains

The people














Dakota Sioux

Gros Ventre


Hunk papa






Kiowa Apache

Lipan Apache












Plains Cree

Plains Ojibway





Teton Sioux



Two kettles







The Great Plains spread across the heartland of the North American continent. You are a land of tremendous contrasts - and monotony. The endless prairies, without a tree or bush, are constantly swayed by strong winds ruffling the buffalo grass in abundance. In the summer heat, destructive thunderstorms drown the earth, but the moisture quickly evaporates in the heat or seeps into the stony or sandy soil. In winter, icy blizzards sweep across the prairie, creating a deserted wasteland of blown snow. It is so dry that agriculture is only possible along the rivers and streams - especially in the eastern prairies. It's "Big Sky Country", beautiful in its serene serenity, terrifying in its raging storms. It stretches from the banks of the Mississippi to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, from Texas to the Canadian prairies.

There was possibly as early as 10,000 BC. Hunters of large mammals on the plains, but most of the people settled along the rivers in order to go on hunting expeditions into the vast hunting areas. The settlement of Europeans around 1600 AD on the eastern coast drove the Indians westward onto the plains. The horse appeared in the late 18th century and spread northward from the Spanish settlements to the southwest. It was the nomadic hunter tribes that this had the greatest impact on, resulting in a horse / buffalo / Indian culture that was surprisingly short-lived - no more than 100 years. By 1880 the buffalo were nearly extinct and the whites had come to the region, often by force, and the classic Plains Indian culture was gone. What remained is the popular American Indian stereotype that we know today.

The early way of life of the Plains Indians is extremely well documented. Most of the tribes had their first contact with the whites through the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1805-1806), which kept extensive reports in their expedition journal. Painters such as George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, John Mix Stanley, the Canadian Paul Kane and the Swiss Rudolph Friederich Kurz depicted many of the tribal members in robes that were not entirely original - the artists follow the dealers - but still have many elements of the Contained clothing before contact with whites. Catlin's notes, Maximilian's books, and close scrutiny by anthropologists provide further information. Later came the photographers - William Henry Jachkson, John K. Hillers, Alexander Gardner, Frank A. Rinehart, and even later, Edward S. Curtis. Ewers thinks that the Indian cliché arose from the work of these artists and the wide distribution of their works.

There are certain factors to keep in mind when looking at plain clothing:

  1. Clothing had to be easy to transport, pack and wear - especially in view of the nomadic tribes.
  2. Large temperature differences had to be taken into account, which means that clothing had to adapt to the constant change; this was usually achieved by putting on or taking off clothing - but some pieces were worn seasonally.
  3. Clothing was very individualistic and reflected not only tribal traditions, but also tastes and merits.
  4. Although there were tribal differences in clothing, they are difficult to reproduce, as continuous giving, trading and general communication between the tribes was common, which led to a certain equality in the Plains outfit.
  5. Plains garments were garments of movement and sound - feathers and fringes fluttered in the wind, bells and bells tinkled, and pearls and shells rattled.

General clothing:

The basic equipment of men:

The loincloth could be a leather apron or a piece of fur that was wrapped around the body. It is said that traders brought the adapted loincloth with them - a piece of skin 25-30 cm wide and 1.50 m-2.40 m long, which was worn with the help of a belt and thus more or less long flaps were created in the front and back. Early loincloths were simple, possibly fringed or some quill work for ceremonial occasions. The Indian was never without this garment, it was a sign of his manhood. So it was almost entirely masculine clothing, although there are a few examples where it was worn by girls before puberty. Thigh-length leggings made of tanned skin were folded up, tied at the sides or sewn with tendon and cut into fringes. Quill ribbons were sometimes added along the outside seams. Only in the far north did men originally wear shirts and these were of a simple poncho type, the sides were not sewn - only later were laced, loosely sewn or knotted. They were decorated with fringes, quill ribbons, locks of hair or strips of ermine. Most of these garments were made from deer skins, but wapiti and antelope were also processed, tanned white, smoked brown or dyed black.

The basic equipment of women:

The earliest clothing for women was a simple wrap skirt held by a belt and a poncho-like cape for inclement weather. This was followed by a strap-and-sleeve dress, which consisted of two skins joined at the sides so that they formed a tube that was held in place by shoulder strips. If necessary, separate sleeves could be added to this by tying them across the back and tying them under the chest at the front. A hood could be added. After sewing, the excess leather was frayed. A dress of transition was the so-called "Side-Fold-Dress" (according to Norman Feder, the leading art historian), which was folded from a single large skin, with a seam on one side, turned up at the top so that a large cloth was created - for a vertical slit was made on the right arm and a shoulder strip ran over the left shoulder. The 2-skin dress below may have resulted from a lighter availability of hides. The two skins were sewn together at the shoulders and sides, the excess leather was fringed and the underside was not cut. This dress was followed by the 3-skin dress, in which 3 skins were sewn together at the sides for the skirt and the top (yoke) with a head opening consisted of a folded skin that was sewn or knotted to the skirt. Knee-length leggings were tied above or below the knee with straps or strips of otter skin. Dresses and leggings were made from deer, elk or antelopenic skin and adorned with quill work (ribbons), shells, elk teeth, leather straps hanging in pairs, fringes or the animal's tail, which was left intact.



Plains Moccasin was available in 2 versions:

  1. The soft-soled one-piece moccasin, similar to the Eastern style, in which a cut piece of leather was folded over one another so that only one seam ran along the outer edge and the heel. They had a long tongue.
    In a variation of this type, the tongue was cut separately and sewn onto the slit.
  2. The second main type was the two-part style with a rawhide sole made of buffalo skin. These moccasins were made either with a cut tongue or with an inserted tongue.

Oddly enough, the Indians wore right and left moccasin at a time when whites were still struggling with the discomfort of identical shoes.
Cuffs were commonly sewn on, especially for winter, so that they could be turned up and tied around the ankles with straps. Winter moccasins were made from fur or made larger so that they could be stuffed with grass, buffalo hair, or the feet could be wrapped in fur beforehand. Ceremonial moccasins were often painted and decorated with fringes and quillwork. Women's moccasins were cut identically to men's moccasins, but had more frequent ankle cuffs.

Outer clothing:

The buffalo robe was the great overgarment of the Plains, worn in winter because of the cold, but served as ceremonial clothing all year round. However, she was a bit of a nuisance weighing up to 45 pounds and yet a prairie Indian was able to carry her with ease and grace. The fur was worn inside; the outside of the robe was usually painted, mostly red, brown, and white.
Certain patterns were used for certain people:

  • The circle of feathers - also known as the "Black Bonnet" - was worn by men but painted by women and was especially popular with the northern tribes.
  • The women's robes, painted by them and worn only by them, showed geometric patterns such as the "Box and Border" pattern or, in some areas, the "Hourglass and Border" pattern.
  • The "exploit robe" (exploit = ​​great deed), worn exclusively by men, was a pictographic representation of a man's acts of war and was painted by him. The painting consisted of stylized battle scenes with many warriors, horses and other animals.
  • Unmarried women wore a series of medallions and pendants along the bottom of their robes
  • Young, unmarried men wore robes with a horizontal swollen stripe and 4 large medallions.

Deer, elk or antelope skin or a "chief's coat", a semi-military coat with brass buttons, gold braids and sometimes epaulettes, were worn as everyday robes. These were much sought after and served more ceremonial purposes than to keep out the cold - originally they came as gifts from merchants to chiefs.


Men wore their hair in a variety of ways, the most common being two braids (in the north) and open (in the south). Other styles: A forelock hanging over the nose - the hair cut short at the front and treated with clay so that it stood in a pompadour at the front - in the roach style, where the head, except for a standing comb in the middle of the head from forehead to neck, is shaved was - the hair pulled forward and tied in a large bun at the front of the head, a style usually reserved for medicine men. All wore a scalp lock, a long, thin curl, usually braided, with various decorations attached. Braids were sometimes wrapped in otter skin. Women mostly wore their hair in two braids - unmarried women let it hang over their backs, married women wore them over their chests in front. On official occasions or times of great joy, the parting was colored with red ocher. Hair usually hung loose on the southern plains. Bear fat was rubbed into it to make it shiny and sweet-smelling herbs perfumed it.


Except for the occasional fur hat for the winter, the Plains Indians went topless year-round, but wore ceremonial headgear. The best known is the feathered war bonnet, the trademark of many contemporary Indians - even those whose grandfather had never heard of it. It was a headdress of great deeds, because every single feather of the "Halo" and the train behind it meant a "coup" or another act of war, such as touching an enemy in battle or rescuing a friend from distress - each feather was used by the warrior awarded to a tribal assembly. The hood was erected on a leather cap as a base, with the feathers attached in a wide circle - wing feathers of the golden eagle (more rarely tail feathers) were the favored material. A strand of horsehair was attached to the tip of each feather - the feather represented men, the strand scalplocks. More feathers were attached to the train, a long strip of leather.

In the time before the horse this train ended at the waist, later it hung to the ground - depending on the amount of feathers that had to be attached. A particularly long feather reached from the top of the hood down the back - a sign that the wearer had taken part in a sun dance. (Another source can be found on this:This spring is the so-called major plume ... it identifies the "owner" of the hood, i.e. this main spring in the middle of the hood is the personal one
Property pen, like an identity card without being of any particular ritual significance. You decorated it however you liked, no heroic deeds were to be read on it.)
A quill headband (later made of pearls) was adorned with ermine strips at the temples (a type of jewelry that did not appear until the end of the 19th century). A strap tied under the chin kept the hood in place even when riding or in strong winds.

The buffalo horn headdress, a sign of the greatest power and strength, was only worn by warriors of the highest rank. It was adorned with shells, pieces of fur or bones, feathers, braided horse hair and ermine fur - with pieces that had a special meaning for the wearer.
Otter skin turbans were popular in the eastern and southern plains. Some headdresses were made from whole bird hide or the head of an animal. Contrary to popular belief, headbands were uncommon on the prairies. Men in particular wore feathers in their hair, the number, size, color and shape of which were of special significance for the wearer; however, there was no fixed "language" of feathers, as the interpretation varied from tribe to tribe and from individual to individual. Shells, pearls, claws or bones could be added to the hair as jewelry. The sheared fur cylinder known as the "Indian hat" was adopted and worn by many Indians in the late 19th century.


Men wore two belts - an inner belt that held the loincloth and legging and an outer decorative belt over it, but which was worn under the shirt. From the outer belt hung things like bags, pouches, tools and weapons. "Medicine bags" were important because the supernatural powers that were bestowed on the wearer depended on the things in them. "Strike-a-light-bags" contained flint and steel, and knife sheaths were attached to them. Women wore leather belts to carry important items such as awl containers and bags of paint. Belts were often painted and decorated with brass nails, quillwork, or beadwork. Fans, carried by men, especially old men, were made of eagle feathers (tail and wings). After 1850 some men wore "breastplates" as jewelry, not as protection, which were made from 5-15 cm long hairpipes, which were first made from the shell of Strombus gigas, then later from bones and arranged in 2, 3 or 4 rows . The breastplate was fastened with straps on the top and on the sides around the neck and waist. It was adorned with brass beads, shells and swollen or pearled ornaments and ribbons.


The Indians, with their love of decoration, wore a lot of jewelry, which they arranged with great care and taste - moreover, this was a form of wealth that could be easily transported. Necklaces were made from grass, seeds, shell beads, fossils, claws, horns, antlers and teeth - especially elk teeth. Grizzly bear claw necklaces looked impressive and contained an extraordinary amount of medicine. Chokers were made from strips of fur, dentalium (from the Pacific coast), rolls of otter fur, quilting and hairpipes - in addition, a large disk made from clam shells was popular. Abundant jewelry also hung from the ears. Pearls, shells, and hairpipes - sometimes weighing up to half a pound - hung from one ear. Shell breast ornaments and pectorals hung on straps from the nape of the neck. Barrettes had an hourglass-shaped rawhide base - pearls and shells hung from them, and bracelets and clips were made from quillwork. Nose jewelry was uncommon on the plains. Silver medals of peace were highly valued by the chiefs - 7-15cm in diameter they bore the image of the respective president on one side, and usually an eagle on the other. They were officially given by the president and minted by the government as gifts for the chiefs.


Warriors carried a large round shield made of heavy rawhide from the neck of a buffalo, which was pulled over a hoop and painted. One tribes directly decorated the shields with symbols of great power revealed to them in their dreams, while others put these symbols on the leather shield cover. The Plains Indians did not wear direct armor, but in early times heavy wapitilkin or buffalo leather shirts were worn as a simple form of armor in some areas

Special clothing:

There was no special clothing for chiefs, they wore warrior clothes including war headdress - but they had a wooden staff or lance, curved at the tip (crook), wrapped in otter skin and adorned with eagle feathers. Special headdresses were worn by the members of the various warrior societies during the tribal dances. Shamans and medicine men were often dressed differently from the others, but in a very individual way.

Clothing decoration:

Porcupine bristle work was an important decoration of clothing in the early days, especially among the northern and central Plains tribes. Many pieces were also decorated with bird quill (feather quill). These picked up the color better, which was especially important when working with green paint. Red and yellow were quite common, black was dyed with girl's hair fern. The patterns used were simple and geometric and mostly worked with 2 sewing threads. Pearl work came at the end of the

18th century and for some time quill and pearls were processed together. From 1830 pearl work became dominant. The end of this century saw pearl work in such abundance that often entire items of clothing were covered with pearls - especially vests, moccasin and leggings. In the early stages, the geometric patterns of the quill work were continued in pearl work, later the floral patterns of the north-eastern Indian tribes were also adopted. The first main type of pearls were the pony pearls that traders brought on their ponies. The smaller seed pearls in their variety of colors appeared around 1840, followed by medium-sized faceted pearls around 1870. The overlay stitch, in which pearls were attached to a thread at regular intervals with a second thread, was popular with many tribes. Other tribes preferred the "lazy" stitch, in which 5 or more pearls were sewn on with one stitch - a good technique for covering large areas. There was little weaving in the Plains tribes. Painting on clothing, flat or in stripes and patterns, was common.

Face and body decorations:

Face and body painting was an important element in the Plains cultures, not only as an ornament but also in a spiritual sense - also sometimes as a visible prayer to a supernatural being. Every warrior looked for patterns and colors for himself, in harmony with his external appearance, his purpose of existence and often his dreams and visions. Painting had different purposes:

  1. Painting as a talisman in war to protect the wearer; Before a battle, not only were the face and body painted, but also the horse. To signal war, women drew stripes down their cheeks and nose and across their foreheads. Warriors returning victoriously painted their faces black, with the tip of the nose mostly unpainted.
  2. Various symbols and colors were used to identify membership in one of the secret military warrior associations.
  3. The face and body were painted in preparation for certain ceremonies. For official occasions, women and men parted their hair and painted the parting with red paint, symbolizing the earth.
  4. People in mourning painted their faces white.
  5. Painting was also used as protection against sun, wind, snow and insects - buffalo or bear fat was rubbed into the skin and then painted over.

Tattoos were not common on the Plains, except at times in the southern areas and the far north.

Clothing in transition:

Because of the wide trading network, European goods found their way to the plains very early. Commercial paints were imported as early as 1770. Glass beads quickly replaced the coarse native beads that were so difficult to make. Early trading pearls, called "pony beads" as they were brought in by the traders in their pony caravans, were an instant hit. These large pearls, which appeared around 1800, were replaced by tiny seed pearls and other variations around 1840. Beadwork became the salient characteristic of the Plains decoration and is used extensively and extensively to this day. Stroud cloth (commercial material) replaced tanned leather in loincloths, dresses, leggings and light capes. Blankets, especially the Hudson's Bay version of the same, gradually replaced the cumbersome buffalo robes, especially when the buffalo started disappearing. The blankets, white with 4 colored stripes at each end, were marked with parallel lines on one side to indicate their "Point" value - that means their equivalent in beaver pelts. They were made into capotes, the jackets of French voyageurs with their long hoods, and girdled with colorful sashes. Leather war shirts were heavily beaded, as were the vests taken over by the whites. The high, black felt hat with the flat brim appeared in the late 19th century. Metals were processed into various jewelry. "Hair plates" - long strips of rawhide to which silver disks were attached, were attached to the hair and hung far down the back. Pewter "tinkler", narrow metal cones, were used to adorn clothes, shirts and utensils and were valued for their sound and their decorative aspect. Metal was also used to make bracelets, ball-and-cone earrings and brooches.