Man's Hide Shirt, Nez Perce

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Summary: 
Part of the Spalding-Allen Collection purchased by the Nez Perce Tribe in 1996 from the Ohio Historical Society. The shirt was made between 1830 and 1840.
Description: 

The shirt includes quillwork and black and white Venetian glass beads. The shirt body is of the two-skin style with hair side outward, and head section at top. Hides are cured by the brain solution technique. The shirt is open sided with open sleeve except near cuff end. Long neck flaps are part of main body skin. Quilling of fringe on neck flap in yellow and brown, yellow on sleeve and shoulder fringe. Quill decorative strips are secured to shoulder with sinew in a loop stitch pattern with a white glass “pony” beads employed on external stitch.

Cultural Narrative: 

Josiah Pinkham on hunting:

"The process [of making a shirt] really begins with the hunter. Because at this point in time, Nez Perce likely had firearms. And when we go out and hunt, we're always told that we should try to take neck shots. And what that does is that it avoids any lower body damage that would have resulted in bullet holes that would have complicated the hide tanning process." 

Josiah Pinkham on preparing the hides:

"When we go out and hunt, we try to take neck shots right at the base of the skull. Because then you leave the brains available. They're not disrupted to the point where you can't use them for hide tanning. Because the process is that you take the animal after you've killed it, you clean it up and you pull the hide off. You don't skin it off with a knife, because knives leave cut marks and hide that basically when you're working that hide and softening it, those cut marks can open up and be even bigger holes than bullet holes. So you avoid using a knife as much as possible. You use a knife to make these cuts up the front of the front legs to the base of the neck, and up the back of the back legs to the base of the tail. And then the skin that's on the inside of where the leg comes down, that gets pulled back on each side to the outside, this being the back. And then that hide gets stripped off one direction or the other. We typically go from the neck down and we pull it off. Because that way you've got no knife marks in it. And from that point, you scrape the flesh side of the hide to remove any bits of tendons that are attached to the muscles that allow that creature to kind of shake and twitch like that. And after that, it gets scraped off. You soak it and then you remove the hair and the outer layer of the grain. And that exposes that thin layer of the hide that's eventually going to result in the hide that you use for making a shirt or a dress.

So after that point you wring it out and then you drop it into a warm solution of brains where you take the brain from an elk will tan that elk's hide. The brain from a deer will be enough to tan that deer's hide. It's kind of that type of a ratio. And that, the animal's brain is full of oils that permeate the hide so after you've wrung all the brain matter out of it, you start to work it back and forth like that as it's drying. And if the temperature is right, it will slowly dry at a pace where you're working that back and forth like that and you're causing all those little hair fibers to get oil molecules in between it. And eventually it's dry and it's been worked as it's drying so that it renders this soft, supple kind of a material almost like felt." 

Josiah Pinkham on making the shirt:

"From that point, it gets taken, along with a hide that matches up with it, and it gets cut apart at a point that’s just right below the upper arms of the animal. And then it’s sewed together along the top so that these two back legs form the major body of the shirt. And then each of the—so we have like the legs like that. And then your little tail part. There’s a cut right there. This part right here becomes the arm. So that’s where this little beaded strip would be like that. And so that gets sewed to this part of it. So this would be the top part of the shirt like that. And then it would be something like that. So that’s how it gets sewed together in basic form. And then these parts of the shirt is fringe that gets cut from another hide. And then you start to decorate that hide. After you have the body of the shirt put together, you start to decorate it with quill work and/or beadwork. And the unique thing about this shirt in particular is that it shows a lot of variety in the skill that went into making things like this. Because you’ve got a few different things going on. You’ve got pony beadwork and you’ve got plaited quill work. And you’ve got single bundle wrapped horsehair. And in my experience, the most difficult thing to do is that."

Kevin Peters on the quillwork:

"It has beadwork on it in the larger pony beads strips on the sleeves. But it has, over the shoulder strips that are quills. And the quillwork is done in lane fashion, crisscross technique. And because it lends itself very well to geometrics, they were put in there. But the beadwork has its geometrics. And they’re doing that in a back and forth, linear fashion. And it relates to a nice geometric shape down here. So one of the things I look at is that it’s like a change of materials. You can be an artist and you can paint a picture in watercolor or you can paint it in acyclic. Or you can paint it in oils. But you’re still painting. And that’s what this shows me. But this one catches us in transition. We have beadwork and the old style quillwork on there. In two different fashions."

Kevin Peters discusses the decorative roundel:

"One of the things I like on it is that roundel in the center of the chest is quillwork wrapped around horsehair. Now I have a hard time tying my shoes, and this person is putting together horsehair, wrapping quill, punching holes and sewing it down all at the same time. I’m just amazed by the intricacy of the item and how you can manipulate your fingers doing that. It’s just kind of like totally amazing."

Kevin Peters discusses his careful study of this shirt when the National Park Service and Nez Perce Tribe thought that it, and the rest of the Spalding-Allen Collection, would need to be shipped back to the Ohio Historical Society:

"When we thought it was going away, another fellow Nez Perce Nakia and G.G. Pinkham and I think even Tisa Matheson was here helping us.  Because we thought it might go away. We had cases built for it. It was coming very close to saying goodbye. And we started looking at it. And what we started looking at was the construction. And that was really neat because we were down looking at stuff with magnifying glasses. Looking at the type of knots. Sinew-sewn. The quillwork is sinew-sewn. I think that even the beadwork is sinew-sewn. But what we found was interesting was when you start counting the fringes on the arms, they were all intact. And it’s just amazing after almost 200 years, and these could be 200 years old. They might have been built before Spalding got here. So they could be fairly old. But we found out the number of fringes matched on each side. There’s a couple hundred of them. 

They had counted them out very carefully. And they matched. And they talk about balance. I looked at this and I was going, these people thought about balance. They really thought about balance back then. We talk about it today, but I look back then and I’m going, the thought has been right in line all these years."

 

Traditional Knowledge: 

Josiah Pinkham a transgenerational interpretation: 

“A shirt like this also had, on the other side of the transgenerational interpretation, it had numerous women that were involved in the process. So his sister may have tanned the hide. His wife may have sat down with his mother and did the beadwork together while they were by the fireplace. And they would have been trading stories and talking and doing different things, you know. I mean, that’s where the real value is. And looking at these things, you think to yourself, those people didn’t have an easy lifestyle the way that I have now. But still they made things that were just absolutely stunning! And I look at those things and I think man, that is just inspirational. They did that without light bulbs. They did that without cars." 

Nakia Williamson-Cloud on the connection between the items in the Spalding-Allen Collection, the elders, and the land:

 

"We have to maintain connections to these things that tie us back to this land. And these things truly do that. And not only to the land, but to our experiences and our history that reinforces our identity. And so I think that I try to retain not only these items that were handed down from generation to generation and up unto myself, but also try to have understanding about how these things are made, how they’re put together and what that means to us as Nez Perce people. I try to have that kind of understanding as well. Not simply that I have the item and if I were to lose the item, then that’s it. I’m trying to retain the knowledge about a lot of these things as well. So again, that’s important.

I want my son and I want my nieces and nephews and someday grandchildren to understand what these mean to us. And that they have a deep meaning to us because of what they represent. And to respect them and not to trivialize them in any way. 

As we’re told in our way of life, we’re taking care of our life as Indian people. And that’s how we do it is in a lot of these ways that connect us back to the land. That’s the way we take care of ourselves. And it’s a continual maintenance that we have to do. And it’s the work we have to put forth and the effort we have to put forth. And never forget it. And always hold onto it. And we have to keep that knowledge that ties us to this land. And that’s so important. Without that, like I said, you know, everything does not really matter as much.

Because these are, all the things that we have within our culture are just basically devices and ways in which we connect ourselves to our elders and to our land. And they’re reminders, constant reminders to us of our true value system and identity as Nez Perce people. And so when you surround yourself with these things and it continues to reinforces and reminds you on a day to day basis, you know, who you are and what you represent. And that’s really important. So that’s what a lot of these do for us is they remind us of the old people.

So they used to say this about how to be. Or they would say this of how to hunt. Or they would say this was the proper time to dig roots. It just allows you a way into, to tap in and to remember that knowledge. 
And it’s knowledge that can never really truly be written down and encapsulated in a book or in any written form. And that’s what our old people talked about. It’s something you have to live and it has to be inside your heart. Because you can write it down, and write things down. And that’s good in a way. But unless you live it and believe it and do it, and it’s a part of you, when you write something down, it automatically limits it. Because it’s only limited to what’s on the written page. And there’s so much more to a lot of these things that our people understood. And so that’s a part of it. These are part of the ways in which we access that knowledge and access that type of understanding. And they’re reminders to us about the value system of our elders and everything else that are important to maintaining our identity."

“These kinds of decorated items were specially made for a man who may be an outstanding person of the village… a leader, a good family provider, a warrior or a spiritual leader.” Garments such as these decorated with quill, beadwork, and “trimmed with feathers or parts of animal pieces”… had “a significant spiritual meaning…” and “were definitely made for sacred ceremonial dance, religious, or ‘medicine dance’ rituals and other special family, or village ceremonies.” Allen Slickpoo Sr. 1995

Description: 

 

Nakia Williamson-Cloud interprets the Nez Perce use of quillwork in the Spalding-Allen Collection , by WSU CDSC