Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History

Date: 1915

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ByCLARKn/aWISSLER, n/an/an/an/a


If one take a typical man’s shirt of the Plains area and suspend it, the sleeve and shoulder line will be found horizontal and to coincide. In other words there is a neck hole, but no collar. If on the other hand, one suspend a true coat, the familiar European sleeve and shoulder cut is seen. This may be generalized by classing the former as of the poncho type and the latter as of the coat type.

First, we may note the structure of the poncho type. Fig. 42 represents a specimen collected about 1838. There is another old specimen in the Nez Percé collection. A more modern specimen is shown in Fig. 2. A simpler but old and interesting specimen is Fig. 3.2 From these sketches the general pattern concept is clear. Two whole skins of mountain sheep or other ruminants are taken and cut as in Fig. 5. Thus, the peculiar contour of sleeve extensions, or capes, is explained as also that of the skirt (Fig. 6). The whole pattern of this type of shirt is seen to be correlated with the contour of the natural material, and it seems most probable that it was this form of the material that suggested the pattern.

The former distribution of this type of shirt cannot be precisely stated, but so far we have found it to prevail among the Dakota, Nez Percé, Gros Ventre, Blackfoot, Crow, Hidatsa-Mandan, Pawnee, Assiniboin, Arapaho, Ute, Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne. It occurs, but less universally among the Sarsi, Plains-Cree, and Ojibway on the north and on the south among the Apache and in the pueblo of Taos.

Our museum collection contains about forty shirts of this poncho type, all of which we have examined in detail. Among them we find many minor variations in pattern, but so far as we can see these are all adjustments to the coat type and to new materials and, hence, due to white contact. The tendency to use cow skins and cloth is very strong and in these materials the natural contour, the base of the pattern, is wanting. This is particularly noticeable in the cut of the bottom as shown in Fig. 7. In most cases this curve is simplified by dropping the tail projection in the center, observable in the older type, Fig. 7b, but in one Arapaho piece we find an interesting rectangular cut at the corresponding point, Fig. 7e.

A comparison of the tops of these sketches shows that the shoulder extensions tend to become true sleeves and the sides of the shirt are often entirely or partially sewn up in which case a vertical cut is made on the breast at the neck without which it would be next to impossible to get into the garment. The older ponchos have neither fronts nor backs, both sides being alike, but many of the modern variants have a distinct front. It is chiefly these variations in association with slight inessential modifications calling to mind features fo European shirts that suggest that we have in Figs 7a and 7b the original type of poncho for men in the Plains area.

Fig. 2. A Dakota shirt. For pattern see Fig. 7b.

This is further reinforced by a study of sleeve forms which in the older skin specimens follow the pattern of Figs 7a and 7c. The [square] sleeve pattern is found most often in cloth and distinctly modern skin pieces.

So far we have concerned ourselves with the pattern alone, but the most characteristic features of these ponchos are decorative. In all specimens of the older type these take approximately the same forms. The most conspicuous of these features are the broad beaded or quilled bands. These are made on separate strips of skin and readily detached from the shirt. From each side of the neck a band runs along the shoulder seam almost to the ends of the sleeves. At right angles to this so as to fall over the shoulders like suspenders are two other bands, one for each side. At the neck, both front and back, are triangular flaps also bearing beaded and quilled decorations. The edges of these bands are often strung with rows of feathers, strips of white weasel skins or human hair. It is due to the latter that these ponchos are often called "scalp-shirts." In the older types particularly, the edges of the body and sleeves were notched and fringed. These characteristics were almost universal but there are in addition, tribal and regional decorations. Thus, many Blackfoot ponchos bear large circular designs on the breast and back. According to Maximilian, this was formerly common among the Assiniboin and a few other northern tribes. Dakota ponchos in particular,

Fig. 5. Diagram showing how a skin is cut and folded to make a shirt of the poncho type.

are frequently painted in two ground colors, bearing heraldic devices. The beaded or quilled bands have tribal peculiarities also. In another paper of this series we shall consider the probable origins of these various decorations.

Returning to the coat-like features of the more modern forms of poncho, we may be reminded that the coat form is not necessarily of European origin. The Eskimo and most Déné tribes cut a coat-like garment that fits the neck and shoulders and has sleeves, but the best known and most distinctly coat-like form is that of the Naskapi. Here the pattern is most clearly cut to fit the human form as in European tailoring. With slight variations this pattern extends through the Cree to the Rocky Mountains and thence to the Salish of British Columbia. It even dips into the Plains as shown in the old Gros Yentre specimen.

Fig. 6. Diagram showing the arrangement of pieces cut from the preceding.

The garments of the western Déné area are not very well known, but in Alaska some of the modern natives wear a coat with flaring skirts like the Naskapi and certain Siberian styles. It is therefore probable that the Naskapi form is aboriginal and not due to European influence. . . .


The costume for women is in its fundamental technique similar to that for men. Taking a Crow specimen as the type (Fig. 16) we see that three pieces of skin are used: an inserted yoke and two large pieces for the skirt. The sides are sewed up from the bottom of the skirt almost to the cape-like extension at the shoulders. There are no sleeves, but the cape-like shoulder piece falls down loosely over the arms. The side seams and the bottom and all outer edges are fringed. The garment has neither front nor back, both sides being the same.

The technical concept is again a garment made from two whole skins, in this case, elkskins. A dress is formed by placing two whole skins face to face, the tail ends at the top, the head at the bottom. The neck is fitted and the yoke formed by the insertion of a transverse piece of skin. Very little trimming is needed to shape the sides of the skirt.

Fig. 7. Shirt Patterns for Men: a Nez Percé; b Dakota; c Dakota; d Nez Percé; e Arapaho; f Crow.

The distribution of this pattern concept so far as we were able to determine by the study of specimens is: Arapaho, Assiniboin, Apache, Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Comanche, Dakota, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Kiowa, Nez Percé, Northern Shoshoni, Plains-Cree, Sarsi, Ute, Yakima.

We Come now to the consideration of variations in the pattern. While the fundamental form holds throughout the above distribution, there are a number of distinct cuts for the contour of the yoke and the bottom of the skirt. Yet, there is very little variation within the tribe, it is truly surprising how precisely each of the tribes we have studied followed a

Fig. 16. A Woman’s dress, Crow. An entire elkskin is taken for each side. A cape-like yoke is formed of two pieces as above, and sewed in place. The tail projection on b hangs loosely over a corresponding one on a.

definite form for the bottoms of their dresses, making it clear that they had a fixed mode, or style for the cut. This will be more fully discussed in another connection.

European trade brought within the reach of these tribes the finest of cloth. A special quality known as strouding was always popular and from the very first was substituted for skins in making garments. This new material had a shape of its own and consequently presented a new problem to the Plains dressmaker. One example is shown in Fig. 21.3 A more common way was to take a rectangular piece of cloth, cut a neck hole in the middle, join the sides by triangular inserts and add shoulder extensions. In many cases the bottom of the skirt is cut out to conform to the old style. Thus it is clear that the original two-skin concept was able to prevail over the introduction of new materials.

When we turn to ornamentation we find these dresses quite decorative. In contrast to men’s ponchos, we find the tail of the elk falling in the center of the breast, but like them in the tendency toward horizontal decorations with quills and beads. While there is considerable tribal variation in decoration, the general tendency is to bead or quill more or less completely the entire yoke. The edges of the yoke and the skirt are usually fringed and sometimes the latter faced with a narrow band of beads. Upon the body of the skirt will be found a varying number of pendant thongs. Among the Blackfoot symbolic devices, of red cloth are often found near the bottom of the skirt and similar attachments are noted on some Sarsi, Crow, and Assiniboin dresses. . . .


Some of the points of general significance developed in the preceding discussion may be formulated as follows:

1. We have satisfactory proof that the characteristic style of garments for both men and women in the Plains area, was suggested by the natural contour of the materials used, or rather resulted from an economic use of the same. It is also shown how quickly the features determined by the shape of the original materials disappeared when trade cloth came into use, though the fundamental pattern remains the same, indicating that this pattern or general concept was one of structure rather than of adapted material. This leads one to suspect that the pattern concept came first to a skin-using people from some external source, most likely from the textile ponchos of the south.

2. The concept of tailoring, or cutting a garment to follow the lines of the shoulder and trunk is found in America only among the coat-wearing tribes: viz., the Eskimo, a few northern Algonkin, and the Déné,

Fig. 27. Distribution of the Plains type of Woman’s dress.

with minor representation among the Iroquois and interior Salish. Our dater show how the idea tends to spread by increasing contact with Europeans. In the Old World tailoring appears again among the more primitive peoples of the north, but in historic peoples first among the Chinese. Its appearance in Western Europe is relatively recent. The idea of tailoring cloth seems not to have been developed by people anywhere except in Central Asia. It seems probable that the extensive use of the toga-like garment and the rectangular poncho, especially the latter, was due to the limitations of the weaving process and that here again the unavoidable rectangular contour of textiles is responsible for the fundamental similarities of styles. The Chinese on the other hand, escaped from these limitations by the development of tailoring. This presents another important problem: viz., did some of the northern tribes invent tailoring out of the necessity of the case or borrow it from some more highly cultured people in Central Asia? One may suspect that the Chinese were the borrowers, but in the absence of investigation this should be given little weight. In any case in the New World we find these two contrasting types of garment structure, tailoring prevailing in the far north and the opposite in the remainder of the continent, including the area of specialized textiles. . . .

5. Finally we have found in this material trait a good ease of culture diffusion. That the secondary features such as cut of skirt-bottoms, sleeves, etc., when found to be the same for two or more tribes are so because of tribal independence in invention, is scarcely admissible because of the observed geographical continuity. A random repetition of specific inventions should also have a random distribution to be consistent with the laws of accident. Likewise the fundamental structural concept which underlies these secondary concepts while very widely distributed is also continuous, whence it follows that the diffusion hypothesis is the most acceptable. We do find one disconnected locality for the two-skin concept among the Iroquois; but since these people were great travelers and had other costume concepts in general use, we may hesitate to credit them with its independent invention.


2 Omitted.

3 Omitted.


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Chicago: "Costumes of the Plains Indians1," Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . "Costumes of the Plains Indians1." Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 17, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Costumes of the Plains Indians1' in Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from