Woman's Dress, Nez Perce

A Nez Perce woman's cured deer skin dress with attached yoke extensions and hem inserts decorated with glass beads, elk teeth, dentalium shell, thimbals, and fringe. The dress was made circa 1820s to 1840 and is part of the Spalding-Allen Collection
Cultural Narrative: 

The missionary Henry Spalding collected this dress as part of a collection he shipped to his patron and friend Dr. Dudley Allen.

In his description of the collection, Spalding emphasized the value of the Nez Perce goods he collected for Allen. He also sought to demonstrate his expertise in Nez Perce material culture. He Spalding noted that the two dresses he sent to Allen were “worn by the rich” and often valued for “3 horses.” The dresses included costly dentalium shell decorations and rare elk teeth. Spalding claimed that dresses such as he shipped to Allen “would sell… in the southern states for $50 or $60 a piece.” Yet Spalding valued the two dresses at the bargain price of $27.

Spalding itemized the materials he packed for Allen with the heading, “price of things as nigh as I can recollect.”

2 dresses Woman… $27.00

1 pr. Men's Leggings… $2.50

Red Bear Skin… $.50

Childs Cradle… $3.00

Woman's Leggins…$2.50

6 pr. Mocisons [sic]… $1.50

3 Woman's hats… $.60

2 Small Baskets… $.40

1 Whip… $.30

3 Hemp Bags… $4.00

2 Men's Shirts… $14.25

1 Woman's Saddle $4.37

2 Hair cords … $.38

On March 27, 1848 Allen wrote to Spalding, “in the Barrel forwarded to Boston last fall I sent you a few things, cannot tell now what, you will see in time I trust. If such articles are as profitable to you as money, why, I will continue to send them.” Allen acknowledged that Spalding was operating in a region where bartered goods were more valuable than cash. Allen continued, “I rec[ieve]d Your 2 Boxes at last. They were badly broken, especially the one containing the saddle & minerals; the last were nicely conglomerated. Moths hurt the dresses much. Still, I prize them more than the cost! At minerals and curiosities try your hand again if the opportunity offers. The clays were all safe. The dresses look tolerable.” Allen continued with more packing advice for Spalding, “if you ever send anything animal [hides] insert it in Tobacco.” Near the end of his letter Allen noted that Spalding would receive this letter and write again before Allen would ship another barrel so Spalding should “write again in full what you want. Our shippers say, dried fruit, honey, &c will spoil in sending. But write all books, or anything for the children, &c tools, &c. and we will send as convenient I trust.”

Quoted from Robert Fletcher, “The Spaulding-Allen Indian Collection.” The Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Vol. 26 (February, 1930), 138. and

Grafe, Steven. “'Our Private Affairs in Way Of Barter': Correspondence Between Dudley Allen and Henry Harmon Spalding, 1838-1848.” Idaho Yesterdays Volume 40 No. 3 (Fall, 1996), 8.

Traditional Knowledge: 

"[There is] a lot of suspicion amongst people now, knowing some of that history from what we know from the written history, but also from our elders, that find it hard to believe that he [Spalding] was actually purchasing those items from Nez Perce people. Because we know the stories of how he would try to shame our people into thinking that those ways were backward, and those ways were somehow associated with the devil and things like that. And so he encouraged them to basically rid themselves of a lot of these type of items that came from our way of life. And so… a lot of Nez Perce people… feel ... that's probably how he got them. Rather than actually paying hard dollars for them." Nakia Williamson

​The decorative element on the yoke includes beads a slender dentalium shells. "And my mom's ancestors, or her family, from the west coast of Vancouver Island, they harvested dentalium. And so that's the only other place along the coast there that they would harvest dentalium in the Northwest coast of Vancouver Island. But my mother was saying that there was a place in Neah Bay, too, that they went. Which was south of Neah Bay probably, I don't know, I'd say four or five miles. And you'd have to take a trail to get there." Linda Paisano

“It was instantly clear the person who made the dress also made the cradleboard (NEPE 33887)… it has a lot of touches, those extra little things you'd do for your baby to show your pride.” Robert Chenoweth

The two dresses in the Spalding-Allen Collection “decorated with beadwork, elk teeth, or sea shell ornaments, [or] small animal parts and fringes.”…signified family symbols, or trademark[s] that held “special meaning” to the makers. According to Slickpoo, these were not everyday garments, but were “sacred to them. These kinds of dresses were made for exclusively for special occasions.” Allen Slickpoo Sr. 1995