Native American Dresses (by Eileen Doughty)

On Independence Day, I went to the National Museum of the American Indian, near the Capitol in Washington, DC. It is the newest Smithsonian museum. One of the main exhibits was “Identity by Design,” showcasing Native American dresses. The Museum’s website has more information about the exhibit and I encourage you to take a look at the online exhibit information; it is a good overview of the importance of this art form to the tribes that practiced it, and how the materials obtained from European cultures was absorbed into the Native culture.

The dresses were from the late 1800’s up to this decade. They were displayed in a simple setting in a very large darkened gallery. The work was outstanding — such a variety of color and design, many beaded patterns but some with elk teeth and quillwork also; a few were painted without any other decoration. There were “patterns” behind some of the dresses showing how they were cut from one, two or three hides.

I took a lot of pictures of but a sampling of the dresses on view; click on these thumbnails to see a larger image.

The two dresses in the first image have combinations of elk teeth and beads.



The dress below uses metal thimbles as decoration. Think of the “music” it must have made as the wearer moved and perhaps danced in it.


This is one of the rarer painted dresses, recording the history of a battle.


More dresses with interesting motifs; the one on the right with American flags was (I think) from the turn of the 20th century.


There were also dresses related to  The Ghost Dance (I have deleted the pictures which were previously posted here), which eventually led to the massacre at Wounded Knee. The signage explained,

“The Ghost Dance dresses are a direct connection to and a reminder of those events of history that should not be hidden, however difficult or saddening they may be. The dresses embody the collective effort of Native women to speak out against the rapid cultural changes being forced upon them. They are a visible reminder of women’s participation in the spiritual rites of their peoples. And they point to a moment of political resistance carried out peacefully.”

The last four dresses are contemporary and probably made for Powwow competition (I include a closer shot of each dress). The first pair have symbols of the Native American Church.



The exhibit got me thinking about the universal need for artists to find an outlet for their creativity, using whatever materials they had available. The Plains Indians had few possessions (certainly compared to current American standards) and had to be mobile, but they found a means to satisfy this urge to make visual art. This exhibit enlightened me about the Native American women’s skill with limited tools and materials to express their culture’s view of beauty; but even more it demonstrates how they made visual their feelings as their world changed so drastically.

Are you aware of other indigenous cultures using art to record their passage into the modern world? Perhaps the aboriginal Australians?


9 Responses to “Native American Dresses (by Eileen Doughty)”

  1. 1 eileen doughty October 26, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Christine, can you tell me where you saw that information about the
    special permission to display the ghost dance dresses? i saw no documentation at the exhibit other than the rather minimal signs next to each display of dresses. there were no guides when i was there.

    it is not my intent to be disrespectful, but to honor this profound expression of societal upheaval in women’s handwork.

    and it is not my site – i am a regular contributor to it.

    thank you,


  2. 2 Christine October 26, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    Your site is wonderful, although I cannot help but wonder why you published pictures of the Ghost Dance dresses. The museum specifically states that they received special permissoin to display these dresses and that because of their special significance they don’t even show them on their own web page. When I visited the museum the guide I was with asked me not to photograph them also. Some things should be honored and this is one of them.


  3. 3 Alba Romero August 19, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    Dear Eileen,

    Iam studying towards a Level 3 Certificate in Advanced Studies for Experimental Stitch (Embroidery) at the Gail Harker Creative Studies Center in Oak Harbor, Wa. One of the assignments is to study the designs, materials,colors and techniques of a group of Native Americans. One of my classmates told me about your article from your visit to the National Museum of the American Indian. I appreciate seeing the pictures and descriptions as it is unlikely that I could attend. Your great selection of photos was very helpful for my research – especially the closeups and details of quillwork, beadwork, thimbles and elks teeth. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

    Alba Romero

  4. 4 Kathy Tibbits August 13, 2007 at 6:53 am

    Eileen, this was like a visit to some place special! Thanks. I especially loved the first 2 dresses because they have bird capelets. It must have been a time of great freedom.

    Western tribes made contact later and were Indian policy victims of expansion when the US was in a mode of “sweep them away.” They call it Termination Era, and it was about death, capture, confinement, neutralization. That is a chilling reality in which the ghost dancing dresses were made. Don’t they share a foreboding, wizardly quality?

    I think over time, at least for Cherokees (of which I am one) our designs have transitioned from being indicators of who we are and where we come from (literally) to decorative. But even today there are some things you can glean about the wearer (or maker).

  5. 5 Sandy August 9, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    We live in the Miwok Mountain area and have a state park that is dedicated to the Miwok with the round house etc – indians comes from many miles to use the sweating round house etc at this park. They have put in a regional museum that covers several tribes. One of the wonderful things that is happening in our small county with the museum is that they are teaching the art of beading, headdresses, leather work to each generation. It is amazing to see the past and present.

    As far as Austrial when we were there in 2000 our aussie guide said the the history that the current people are seeing is only about (now)17 years old. The point before that was survial somewhat as our indians on the reservations.


  6. 6 eileen doughty August 8, 2007 at 8:03 am

    I wish the exhibit had had a brochure or small catalog or SOMETHING to take away, but information was pretty minimal. This has been a criticism of the museum since it opened – that signage and explanations are minimal. I believe the museum director’s philosophy is that Native Americans are not to be viewed as museum artifacts, so this museum avoids presenting them as such.

    I think this artform of the decorated dresses probably follows the same trend as in any culture, as materials become cheaper and more readily available, and leisure time increased. The earlier dresses were probably decorated only on the top, rather than all over, because materials and time were limited in the 1800s. The opposite is true today. Also, it is unlikely they had a very large wardrobe back then, so a totally beaded dress would have been totally impractical to wear for anything but a ceremony, and who wants to haul it on a travois across the prairie if it takes up a big part of your pack and you can only wear it once? I do remember a sign in the exhibit pointing out that the quality of the decorations reflected on the status of the owner.

    The glass trade beads were very popular as explorers and traders pushed west across the continent – cheap to make, easy to transport, and valued by the Natives as something they could not make themselves.

  7. 7 June August 7, 2007 at 5:11 pm


    I’m interested in the interaction of the indigenous designs and what happens after the anglos become a presence. For example, the first couple photos show a concentration on the layered top of the garment, while the last (which you say are probably contemporary) have an all-over design. Is this a trend, a pre-and-post, or just an anomoly of what you’ve captured.

    Do you know of any information about what happened to the indigenous people’s work once they started interacting with traders and settlers? How did they adapt the newly available materials to their own uses?

    It’s interesting that some of the work was a direct response to injustice — that this would be the avenue taken by the Native Americans. Anglo women may have made Civil War or anti-slavery or anti-alcohol quilts, but the Native Americans embodied their political thoughts in clothing.

    The other question is like the first, I guess — what fabrics got adapted and how were they unlike what the anglos might have been using in clothing, if at all.

    I realize these aren’t easy questions, but I thought you might have some insights from your experience and research.

  8. 8 Peg Keeney August 7, 2007 at 5:23 am

    Eileen thank you for sharing your photos of the dresses. They are amazing. I have always been iterested in the art produced by native americans. I am drawn to the wonderful basketry they produced.
    I am taking the grandkids to a pow wow on saturday

  9. 9 clairan August 6, 2007 at 4:14 am

    Thank you, Eillen. These dresses are so beautiful, I’m glad to have gotten to see them. I love that museum. All those drawers of artifacts. . . .

    I don’t know about the indigenous peoples of Australia, but I have visited the Women’s Pioneer Hut Museum (literally a tin hut in Tumbarumba, NSW AU). There you can see how pioneer women in Australia under very difficult and primitive conditions “made due” and made beauty. They crafted all kinds of needlework, some plain, some very fancy, to wear, but also to cover netting to keep out blow flies. Incredible.

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