War Shirts

Picture of War Shirts

Plains Indian War Shirts
Facts and information about the History of Clothing and regalia of Native American Indians and their War Shirts. Native American War Shirts were ceremonial tunics that were worn at important ceremonies and rituals. Unlike their name would seem to indicate they were rarely worn during battles.

These special items of clothing were adorned with many different types of decorations including intricate beadwork, symbolic paintings, sacred ornaments, feathers and fringes. Human hair was also attached in the form of a scalp taken from an enemy (scalp lock) or a good luck charm from a member of the warrior's family. The privilege of wearing war shirts could only be granted by tribal councils in recognition of brave deeds in battle.

Plains Indian War Shirts Fact Sheet

  • War Shirts Fact 1: The above picture depicts Peh-to-pe-kiss, meaning "Eagle's Ribs", who was a distinguished Piegan warrior of the Blackfoot tribe. It was painted by the famous artist George Catlin (1796-1872) at Fort Union in 1832. His deerskin shirt is beautifully embroidered and painted with symbols representing his battles and his life. The shirt features a beaded rosette design at the front, is fringed at the sleeves and displays his battle trophies in the form of small scalp locks taken from his enemies. The shoulders have additional glass beadwork that mimic the epaulettes worn by US army officers
  • War Shirts Fact 2: Symbolic icons and pictorial images reflected the battle experiences of the wearer and also symbolized religious beliefs, power animals and elements in nature
  • War Shirts Fact 3: The war shirts worn by the tribes of the Great Plains were synonymous with elevated status and leadership
  • War Shirts Fact 4: To be granted the honor of wearing a war shirt the warrior must have proved himself in battle by killing an enemy, performing a brave deed such as counting coup or stealing a horse from the enemy
  • War Shirts Fact 5: These special garments were believed to be supernatural possessing intrinsic spiritual powers which were transferred to the wearer
  • War Shirts Fact 6: War shirts were powerful, sacred garments believed to be imbued with deep cultural meaning and were frequently painted with religious symbols
  • War Shirts Fact 7: Designs were painted on the front of war shirts symbolizing victory in battle, the back of the shirts carried a design to give protection against surprise attacks to the wearer
  • War Shirts Fact 8: The holder of the garment had gained honor and great respect from the tribe and as such was expected to demonstrate continued bravery and follow an honorable code of conduct
  • War Shirts Fact 9: Failure to live up to these high standards could result in the tribal elders revoking the right to wear the shirt
  • War Shirts Fact 10: War shirts were made with great care from deerskins or the hides of mountain sheep. Strips of beautiful beadwork or quillwork covered the seams
  • War Shirts Fact 11: Iconography: The symbols and motifs on war shirts had specific meanings to different tribes, were usually painted in black or red and included symbols for deeds of bravery, basic triangular human forms, wounds and horse tracks
    • A single vertical bar or stroke was a honor mark recording war deeds
    • A horse symbol next to a vertical stroke represented a horse raiding expedition, horizontal bars under this type of icon represented the number of horses captured
    • Basic, triangular shaped figures represented battles
    • Some tribes painted these figures upside down representing a death symbol. Other tribes such as the Sioux and the Mandan depicted severed heads
    • There were icons that represented scalp symbols and the number of captives taken
    • Wounds were indicated with vertical lines indicating running blood
    • Some leaders of war parties carried war pipes (Arapaho and Hidatsa), and a pipe symbol indicated this status on the war shirts
    • Several icons and pictorial images in a row, or "Bar tallies", represented complex deeds in battle
  • War Shirts Fact 12: An authentic war shirt worn by Chief Joseph of Nez Perce tribe sold at auction for $877,500 in Reno, Nevada
Native American Clothing
Native Indian Tribes Index

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