January 31st, 2009
This is a picture, from The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, of a Cheyenne woman, Woxie Haury, in a ceremonial three-hide dress.
The Native American three-hide dress is made from three different hides: one worn as a poncho on top with two sewn together for the skirt. Originally these were made as separate pieces so the poncho could be removed in the summer but gradually in the mid-19th century the poncho would be sewn to the skirt. The dresses were sewn by hand using porcupine quills as needles. The outline of the animal was kept largely intact to honor the animal’s spirit. It is not clear when these dresses came into being, but the tradition began centuries ago, long before European contact.
The three-hide dress was used predominately amongst the women of the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, and Ute tribal groups, in the Southern Plains, but could be found amongst many native groups in the nineteenth century. These dresses were not only for functional use but also as a means of self-expression in adding adornments to the animal hides. The dresses were primarily ceremonial in use with extremely elaborate embellishments. These dresses became symbols of the Native American culture as certain dresses were created for specific dances or customs.
Women had to prepare the hides by hand, originally using stone tools but later metal tools, like scissors, obtained from Europeans. Native American women would decorate their dresses with fringe, shells, bone or teeth, and cloth. In the nineteenth century, women were able to obtain glass beads from trading companies, particularly those from from Italy and Czechoslovakia. Colors and designs on the dresses symbolized various tribal traditions or were created from dreams or visions.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government increased pressures for Native Americans to assimilate. Many started to decorate their dresses in red, white, and blue as tribes complied with demands to participate in patriotic ceremonies, like 4th of July. The dresses were important to many indigenous people because they symbolized the Native American’s solidarity against the U.S. even as they were forced to celebrate.
Today, Native Americans still create three-hide dresses for use in weddings and ceremonies. There are also a handful that are housed in museums such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (as is the one below). These are now seen as a way to connect with a tribe’s past and traditions as well as an art form.