Thursday, May 19, 2011


The key story here is from  Art Daily and Art Journal are my most dependable sources of information about the arts and museum world.  They often include stories about artifacts and related fields like anthropology and paleontology.

These so-called warshirts are interesting to think about as art objects in terms of design, but also in terms of the niche they occupy among artifacts.  They are actually more like ceremonial shirts or parade shirts and might be accompanied by leggings, which in later years to reflect Euro tastes, might be matched in pattern and or colors.  Some shirts have detachable sleeves and/or open armpits, sort of like modern outdoor wear meant for heavy exertion, but useful if you're sitting on a horse in the sun waiting for a parade to start.  Like this small sculpture between Bob Scriver and I at the opening of the Whitney Gallery expansion of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in the Sixties:

Probably many people don't think about the use and antiquity of these often spectacular garments.  If they are decorated with glass beads, they are necessarily post-white contact.  Quill work would be the earlier version, but if the quills are dyed with something other than a local substance, they would be post-contact again.  I always liked the story of the woman in modern times who produced vivid quill work, using porkies picked up as roadkill along the highways.  Her dye source was a handful of crepe paper thrown into a pot of boiling quills.  The hide itself could also be colored with plants or minerals or fungus.  Bright yellow was a favored color.  Blue or green might suggest storms, thunder, magic, power.  White comes from deposits of kaolin in places where the white clay can also be made into pots. 

Sometimes they are made of coarse wool, red or navy blue, that also had to come with traders.  Many depictions of prairie Indians in the early days show long shirts ending above the knees and worn with only a breechclout, if that.  The length might be related to sort of hide used.  Women, of course, wore a longer version and probably not so fancy.  The strips of beading are usually worked separately and then sewn on.  Jessie Schultz, one of the later wives of James Willard Schultz, was instrumental in getting the Museum of the Plains Indian built in Browning, Montana, as a craft center for the creation of such garments to sell.  She insisted that Blackfeet always did geometric patterns while Cree did floral patterns.  I only know from experience that working with the small units of color that are beads, it's natural to create a geometric and possibly repetitious pattern, especially if working on a woven base.  But Cree floral near-embroidery on black velvet is quite different.

The long fringes are said to carry water off, dripping it.  In days before such attachments were for ornamental purposes, it would be easy to pull off a thong to tie things up.  Ermine (winter weasels, never summer hides) were attached to dangle and so were actual scalps, which probably led to the idea of war shirts, but they were often imitated with horse hair or just human hair, no scalp attached.

Several years ago I noticed these shirts were showing up in the Manitou Auction that accompanied the C.M. Russell Ad Club benefit auction in Great Falls in March.  The prices exceeded those of most of the paintings.  It's an open question whether planning and creating such a shirt would be more or less dependent on skill and persistence than a high quality painting.

Sotheby's Sets New Auction Record for American Indian Art with War Shirt that Sells for $2,658,500

Oglala Sioux Beaded and Fringed Hide War Shirt. Est. $250/250,000. Sold for: $2,658,500. Photo: Sotheby's.
NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s set a new record for a piece of American Indian Art at auction when an Oglala Sioux Beaded and Fringed Hide War Shirt which once belonged to the famous and celebrated Sioux Chief, Black Bird sold to an anonymous buyer for $2,658,500 (est. $250/350,000). The War Shirt led the sale which totaled $4,809,503. This was comfortably over the high estimate and the highest ever total for a various owner sale in this category (overall est. $2.8/4 million).

Two determined telephone bidders battled for several minutes before auctioneer Hugh Hildesley brought the hammer down. In addition to the provenance, the shirt is made all the more remarkable by the existence of photographs showing it being worn by its original owner. Photographic documentation of an artifact as important as the Oglala Sioux Shirt is very rare. In this case though, several images exist of Chief Black Bird wearing the shirt, providing an important insight to its history and to the life of the Chief who was one of the most documented Native Americans of his generation.


This photo is Shortie White Grass, head of the Buffalo Dung Band in 1899.  Shortie was a true warrior, but the intertribal warfare was mostly before 1880.  I do not know whether he actually wore this shirt into battle.  The photo was taken by Walter McClintock and is part of the Glacier National Park Archives.  It appears in William Farr's indispensable book of photos called "The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945."

Bob Scriver used one of these shirts on the cover of "The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains."  His informant, probably John Hellson, told him that the ermine skins meant the man was a Medicine Bundle keeper and that the round pattern on the chest depicted the sun and the arrows he gave the people.  The oval spots with squiggly tails that are drawn directly on the hide are said by some to depict tadpoles, indicating water power, and by others to represent scalps, since this is supposed to be a war shirt.  Some early shirts have real scalps, or imitations made of horsehair or human hair, no skin attached.

I count eight shirts and three full-suits in the collection.  Six belong to the "war shirt" genre and the others are simply buckskin shirts embellished with quills or beads.  Two of the suits were worn specifically by Bob Scriver, one made for him in the Thirties when he was the leader of the All-Indian band, and the other commissioned by him for ceremonial events in the Fifties.  (He was white, but also the school band teacher.)  I've been told that not all of these shirts and suits were retained by the Royal Alberta Museum, but when they were sent back across the border, they were intercepted by border officials who conveyed them to the Montana Historical Society, who "repatriated" them to well-placed members of the Blackfeet Tribe.  I have no confirmation of this, but it's pretty typical of how artifacts travel.

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