Nakia Williamson-Cloud Interprets a sám’x, Shirt

Cultural Narrative: 

[greeting in Nez Perce]


My name is Nakia Williamson. I’m the director for the Nez Perce Tribe Cultural Resource Program. And I’m here to talk about some of the items in the collection here at the WSU Manuscript Archives and Special Collections and some of the ethnographic items that were collected by L.V. McWhorter in his association with the Nimiipuu, the Nez Perce people. This sám’x or shirt as we call it in our language, is made from cotton trade goods. And as the time when our people came into contact with the new people, new trade goods started to come and be utilized amongst the Nez Perce people. The original clothing, of course, being constructed out of various hides, especially that of the tin’uun or hiyetey, bighorn sheep. And also the dear, white tail, as well as mule deer, and even antelope, we call coq’aláynin’ were ideal types of materials to be used for the construction of clothing, shirts, leggings, moccasins, you know, different types of footwear.

And then later on, as trade shirts had come into our kind of world orbit, I guess, in terms of the different types of materials that were coming in and were being adopted, some were being adopted, but also the original clothing constructed out of the hides, the original hides, were retained as well for specific purposes. But they would often move into the everyday wear. Or even the ceremonial, and they would adopt some of the trade goods. And so the cotton trade goods were one of the staples that were found in the early Hudson Bay, the traders, the first traders that came here, as well as different kinds of woolen cloths that were utilized that helped supplement the original materials, the hide materials made out of deer, elk, bighorn sheep and those sorts of items that were used prior to contact.

But at the same time, when our people would adopt certain items of clothing from the European manufacturer or those, they would have a very specific sort of pattern that was unique to our people. Similar to the dresses, they adapted to a new dress that was referred to, from the hide dress to utilizing the cloth. And it was called sexpíin or the wing dresses that were utilized, made out of manufactured cloth. Similar to what was happening with the men’s clothing. And I guess in general, the men because of their dealings with the new people, adapted to some of the newer clothing even quicker than the womenfolk did.

And this is one of the shirts that was kind of an adaptation to manufactured cloth. It could have even potentially been a manufactured, a commercially made shirt. It may have also been sewn by a native person, a Nez Perce woman. And they adapted it by cutting the fringes out of the lower ends of the sleeves and the lower body of this shirt, which kind of reflected some of the hide clothing that was always fringed on the edges. And these shirts were often made later on out of muslin and sometimes contrasting cloth. Oftentimes white with blue or red fringes that they would insert into the seams. And this one’s cut with what would be termed self-fringe, where the fringe is actually cut straight out of the actual shirt itself. Similar to what would have been done with the hide.

So these shirts came about as early as 1860 to 1870, being pictured with Nez Perce people. As well as other men from the plateau, northern Plains area, these shirts came into use around the 1870s time period. In fact, in a William Jackson photo taken in 1871 just east of what is now Livingston, Montana, there depicts a couple of Nez Perce men standing outside of a hide teepee. And one of those men is wearing a similar type of shirt. So this was a shirt that represented a specific time period as they’re transitioning from the original hide clothing that was once everyday  use to the more commercially made and manufactured sorts of woolen cloth or cotton material that was utilized and was readily available at the time after the initial traders came into our area.

And at that time in the 1870s, of course, there were traders all across this region, Northern Plains and into Montana. Over here in Idaho and into Washington and Oregon. So they would trade for these items. And they incorporated them into the material culture of our people. But again modified it into their own taste and their own aesthetics, if you will, that represented the original way in which our people adorned themselves and clothed themselves according to the laws associated with this land which connected us to the four-legged animals. But of course that same understanding carried over into the cloth items such as this particular shirt right here.

So during 1877, most of the men in their day-to-day wear were wearing these types of commercial or manufactured cloth shirts. And many of their items, although traditional in form were constructed out of manufactured cloth, whether it’s woolen or other material. Linen cloth or, in this case, cotton manufactured cloth. But again, the form is unique Nez Perce and reflects those values associated with our people in terms of how they clothed and adorned themselves.