Native American Clothing and Regalia

Young boy in full regalia.

Young boy in full regalia.

Today is Sunday, November 24, 2013.

Most of us nowadays have a fair idea of what Native Americans wore when they first encountered Europeans.  In most tribes, the men wore breechclouts – long, rectangular pieces of hide or cloth that were tucked over a belt, so that the flaps hung down in front and back, and leggings in cold weather, but in some tribes they wore a kind of kilt or fur trousers.  The men seldom wore shirts, but Plains Indians did wear decorated buckskin war shirts.  Most of the women wore skirts and leggings; the length, design, and material varied from tribe to tribe.  In some cultures, shirts for women were optional, and worn more like a coat.  In other tribes, women always wore tunics or mantles in public.  Some women wore one-piece dresses, such as the traditional Cheyenne buckskin dress.  Nearly all tribes had some type of moccasin (leather shoe) or mukluk (heavy boot).  Most tribes had additional clothing for cold weather, such as cloaks or hooded parkas.  Headgear and formal clothing differed greatly from tribe to tribe.

After colonization, since tribes were forced into closer contact with one another, they began to borrow styles from each other.  The result was that items such as buckskin clothing with fringes, feather headdresses, and woven blankets became popular with the members of a number of different tribes.  Native Americans also began to adapt Western clothing for their own use by decorating garments with beadwork, embroidery, and traditional designs.  Beaded jackets, ribbon shirts, patchwork skirts, satin shawls, woolen sweaters, jingle dresses, and Cherokee tear dresses became popular.

These days, most Native Americans wear the same clothing that everyone else does, no matter whether they live in urban or rural areas, but for formal occasions, they like to wear more traditional items of clothing.   These are separate, however, from the special garments that are worn for powwows, and religious ceremonies.  These special garments are called “regalia,” and they are never used for everyday wear.  The term “costume” for these special clothes is offensive to some Natives, because it reminds them that Native clothing is often used as Halloween costumes, which are mostly non-traditional in nature, and certainly not historically accurate.  Many costumes tend to caricature Native Americans, and costumes for both men and women are often overly sexy in nature.

Shawl dancer.

Shawl dancer.

Regalia includes any special dress, ornamentation, headgear, masks, jewelry, or any other paraphernalia that is worn for a particular dance, ceremony, festival, or ritual.  The style of the clothing, with certain symbols and designs or colors in the beadwork, helps to identify the wearer’s tribe or family of origin.  Some aspects of the regalia can also identify the wearer’s political status or marital status.  The masks for ceremonies are made out of wood, and often depict gods and spirits, or represented animals that are thought to be sacred by the tribe.  Some items of regalia are used only for particular ceremonies and no other.  Ceremonial regalia is often ritually purified or blessed, generally by “smudging” or exposing the items to the smoke of a sacred herb, such as sage.  If these items are touched by the wrong person, they are considered to be spiritually contaminated, so it’s very important not to touch regalia without the wearer’s express permission.

In more recent times, “fancy dancing” has become a staple of powwows, and there are contests with prize money for the winners of the competition.  Certain types of regalia are used for specific type of fancy dancing, and more modern styles have developed.  Wearing regalia is a way for Natives to carry on and take pride in their culture and heritage.

These days, you will probably not see Native American regalia outside of a Powwow.  Here are some Rules of Etiquette for attendance at a powwow.

1.  Never refer to a dancer’s regalia as a costume to avoid causing offense, and to give respect for the time, thought and care that goes into making it.  Regalia are expensive and very time-consuming and difficult to produce.  Many are family heirlooms.  The feathers are considered sacred and are highly valued.  (Did you know that, by law in the United States, only members of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe may obtain or use eagle feathers?  Anyone unauthorized persons found with an eagle or its parts in their possession can be fined up to $2500?)

2.  Never touch a dancer’s regalia without permission.  Even if the regalia has not been ritually purified, it probably contains delicate beadwork or feather ornamentation that cannot easily be repaired.

3.  It is perfectly OK to ask questions about the regalia.  Natives tend to be very friendly and willing to answer questions.

4.  Be courteous and respectful when taking photographs at a powwow.  Taking photos is usually acceptable during dance competitions, but there are some times when it is not OK to take photographs.  The MC for the event will let the audience know when photographs are forbidden. 

5.  If you wish to photograph an individual wearing regalia outside the “arbor” or dance area, always introduce yourself and ask permission. If the photograph may be used in a commercial project, tell the dancer up front.  Always offer to send the dancer a copy of the photograph.  They are usually glad to give you a mailing address.

There are other rules of etiquette for powwows, but I will take those up in a future blog entry.

Indian Country Today recently published an article about regalia worn at the 39th Northland College Spring Powwow in Ashland, Wisconsin.  This year, the school provided a photo booth for powwow attendees, with photos taken by photographer Bob Gross.  There are fifteen photos, two of which are shared here.  🙂


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