Woman's Elk Hide Dress, Nez Perce

Summary: 
Nez Perce Woman's dress made of two elk skins between 1820 and 1840 by the Nez Perce and acquired by Henry Spalding and sent to Dudley Allen. Purchased by the Nez Perce Tribe in 1996.
Description: 

The dress is decorated with glass beads, elk teeth and fringe. The skins are left in natural form with hair allowance on legs and tail, and folded together with hair side inward, and the tail end upward and folder over to outside. The head section with ears and nipples are left on skin. The natural flare of the hide legs produces a wide skirt bottom. The dress includes wrinkles at the waist, evidence that it was worn with a belt. There are some missing beads, elk teeth, food stains, and hair slippage.

Cultural Narrative: 

Josiah Pinkham on hunting:

"So the process 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." 

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." 

Traditional Knowledge: 

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."

 

"The hide that they used, you know, you can tell that the workmanship was really excellent. Because if you handle the material, it's very soft. I mean, and so this is like old, old material. You know, over 100 years old. And it's still as soft as it was, probably, when they made it. And so you know that the workmanship was absolutely excellent. And the fringe is really fine... And one of the Nez Perce ladies, one of the elder ladies, she said that you can tell the dresses from long ago compared to the contemporary because the fringe is really fine, the older dresses... But the dresses that they make now, I mean, you can't cut them as thin as they did with [obsidian], you can't cut them like that with a regular scissor because the scissor just can't do it, make it that thin." Linda Paisano 2015

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