A’aninin Shirt


Shirt, c. 1890
A’aninin (Gros Ventre)
Wool, beads, animal hide, ribbon


It’s easy to imagine that a man wearing this shirt would stand out in a crowd. Pink bands of color jump off bright red wool. Bold patterns spring from rows of tightly sewn beads. Curtains of animal hide fringe dangle from all sides, to flow with every move. The man wearing this shirt would surely seem larger than life.

A shirt like this one grabs the attention of anyone who sees it. But for the people of the A’ani/Nakoda community in which this shirt was made and worn, its impact went beyond the details just noticed. The way a shirt was made, the materials it was made of, and how it was used provided an even greater honor than its visual beauty.


The shirt honors an individual but involves the community.

A man had to earn the right to wear a shirt like this one on the Great Plains in the 19th century. He might prove himself to be brave in battle, or cunning at raiding horses. But he also had to be thoughtful and wise. His actions helped his community survive.A woman of the community stitched the beadwork and sewed the shirt. Elders of the community presented the shirt to him in a sacred ceremony. Sometimes they attached long locks of their own hair (or their enemy’s hair) to the shirt, in place of a fringe. The wearer of the shirt literally carried his community with him when he wore it. If he acted dishonorably in the future, the shirt might be taken away.

The man would wear the shirt on special occasions, with leggings, moccasins, and a headdress. The decorations on the shirt might invite a retelling of the stories of his exploits. The history of the tribe would come alive. Just as importantly, those stories offered a model of honorable behavior for the well-being of the people in the future.

Winter Horse Raiding Episode, c. 1910
Old Bull
Pigment on canvas

Raiding horses was one way to demonstrate cunning and bravery on the Plains in the 1800s, as shown in this Hunkpapa.

Female Doll, 20th century
Animal hide, beads, animal hair, metal, wood, bone, pigment

Girls learned how to sew and bead by making dolls, like this one which belonged to a Lakota girl.


The shapes and patterns of the shirt are rooted in tradition.

Although no two Plains Indian honor shirts are exactly alike, many have features in common. Decorated bands cross the shoulders and run down the arms of most shirts. Fringe hangs across the back and the arms. And many shirts have a decorated bib at the neck as this one does.These features recall the traditions of an earlier time. Plains Indian men did not typically wear shirts before the 19th century. Instead, they wrapped themselves in robes of animal hide, wearing the fur against their skin. The earliest shirts were made by sewing two animal skins together. The front legs of the animals became the shirt’s sleeves. The skin of the rear legs dangled from the bottom of the shirt.

Some people think decorated bands were originally added to cover seams on robes where two pieces of hiding joined together. This decoration was used on shirts too, even when there was no seam underneath. The bib at the neck of the shirt was skin from the animal’s head. These decorations continued to appear on Plains Indians shirts even when the shirt itself was made of other materials, like the wool of this shirt. Sometimes the decoration from a worn-out shirt was cut off and stitched on a new shirt which might be the case with this one.

What do the patterns on the decorated bands represent? No one can say with certainty. The blue and white diamonds might be eagle feathers, white with black tips in nature. Eagle feathers were an important part of a warrior’s dress since the eagle was the most sacred animal for Plains Indians. The crossed bars on a white shield maybe some symbol of strength. Or these patterns may simply have pleased the artist as she worked, inspired by the shapes she saw in other things around her.

(detail) Shirt, c. 1890
A’aninin (Gros Ventre)
Wool, beads, animal hide, ribbon


These designs may have had symbolic meaning when the shirt was made, or they may have been pleasing patterns.


The shirt tells the story of a changing way of life.

The traditions of a people change as their way of life changes. Life on the Plains brought many changes in the decades before this shirt was made. Some of them can be seen in this shirt.One example is the beads used to add color and pattern to this shirt. Traditionally women crafted their designs using porcupine quills, colored with natural dyes. Glass beads from Italy and Bohemia, exchanged with European traders for pelts and hides, offered more colors, and were easier to work with. By the late 1800s when this shirt was made, quillwork had almost disappeared from Plains Indian shirts. But artists continued to form the traditional patterns in the new material.

The bright red wool of the body of the shirt is another change. As European settlers moved westward throughout the 19th century, Plains Indians have crowded off their traditional territory. Hunting as a way of life became impossible and animal hides grew scarce. The wool cloth became another popular trade item. Lightweight and warm, the wool made a comfortable shirt. Like a shirt made of animal hide, this shirt is not sewn together at the sides. Notice how the white edge of the cloth, where the cloth was held in the factory as it was dyed, has been carefully saved to decorate the bottom edge of the shirt.

Moccasins, before 1940
Mrs. Drags Wolf
Animal hide, sinew, porcupine quills

Porcupine quill decoration, seenhere on a moccasin, almost disappeared in the 19th century because beads were easier to work with.

(detail) Shirt, c. 1890
A’aninin (Gros Ventre)
Wool, beads, animal hide, ribbon
A strip of white remained along the edge of the wool cloth where it was gripped by a tool during the dying process.


Related Activities

Is that diamond shape a feather?

Plains Indian beadwork designs are often geometric, symmetrical, and limited to three or four colors. It is hard to know when a design is based on a natural object, like a feather or animal track, and when it is just a pleasing pattern. Explore the process of making abstractions from nature by creating symmetrical patterns based on natural forms. Use two or three colors to fill in squares on small grid paper. Are other people able to recognize what natural form a design is based on?

The clothes in your closet

The materials and techniques used to create Plains Indian shirts changed over the course of the 19th century. Take a survey of the clothing worn by students in a 21st-century American classroom. What kinds of materials are most common? What qualities do those materials have? How are those materials produced? What parts of the clothing are functional? What parts are just decorative? What different ways is decoration applied? What types of images appear? Compile a catalog of these observations with written descriptions and illustrations of the groupings noticed.

Completing the outfit

Honor shirts were worn as part of a full outfit including leggings, moccasins, and a headdress. On Mia’s website view a selection of moccasins from the museum’s collection. Which pair of moccasins seems to fit best with this shirt? What do you see that makes you say that? In what ways are all moccasins similar? In what ways do they differ? Consider colors, patterns, and materials.

Honorable behavior, now and then

Only men who behaved bravely and honorably for the good of the community wore shirts like this one. The book Black Elk Speaks (available at Hennepin County Public Library) presents one man’s memories of Plains Indian life in the 19th century. Read selections and discuss what types of behavior were considered honorable in Black Elk’s time. (Younger students might consider the same question through the many picture books of Paul Goble, which evoke life on the Plains at that time.) Then examine a recent issue of Indian Country (available online) and consider what actions are considered honorable for the good of the community today.

Honorable behavior, now and then

Hail, Barbara A. Hau, Kóla! The Plains Indian Collection of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1980) Horse Capture, Joseph D. and George P. Horse Capture, Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) Maurer, Evan. Visions of the People: A Pictorial History of Plains Indian Life (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1992) Thom, Laine. Becoming Brave: The Path to Native American Manhood (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992)