For this July's Object of the Month, I invited George Horse Capture (A�aninin [Gros Ventre]), former colleague, Curator, and Special Assistant for Cultural Resources and Senior Counselor to the Director at the National Museum of the American Indian to review our Plains shirts from the Harold Case collection. With his son Joseph, George curated an exhibit about Plains shirts at the NMAI titled "Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts." In the accompanying catalogue they emphasize the shirts as representative of a particular time in history, the techniques of their making, and their power and meaning to Native peoples.
The information we have on each of the shirts below according to the catalogue record is very brief and leaves many unanswered questions. Who made these shirts? For whom? Why were those colors chosen, when exactly was it made, and for what purpose? While we cannot know the answers at this time, George Horse Capture's insight into these pieces helps us understand in more detail the importance of Plains shirts. Along with the history of the donor, Rev. Harold Case, we can gain a better understanding of the peoples, life and times of when these items were created.
Curator of Cultural Anthropology
Hidatsa Style Deer Skin Shirt
This shirt is Hidatsa style, but could have been made by a member of any of the Three Affiliated Tribes. It includes a "three feather" design of purple on orange decorative quill work.
In the 19th century, members of the Three Affiliated Tribes already had a long tradition of quill working and were prolific in this form of artwork; it is believed that they are responsible for the majority of quilled Plains shirts we see in museums today. These shirts have been found among many other tribes-- perhaps as trade items, gifts, or their style was copied (Horse Capture 2001). Although there are shirts identified as Blackfeet, Comanche and Gros Ventre in museum collections, they were likely all Hidatsa-made trade items.
Quill work is a form of decoration in which porcupine quills are dyed and woven into designs or wrapped on strips of rawhide. In this Hidatsa Style Hyde Shirt, as the detail shows, a plaiting technique was used-- interweaving multiple quills. For the Three Affiliated Tribes, the majority of shirts in collections today were created by women. Quill work is a continuing decorative practice and can be seen, for example, incorporated into dance regalia at powwows.
Hidatsa Style Cloth Shirt
This shirt exhibits a similar style, but is made of cloth, which means the wearer recycled the quill and leather strips. As George explained, "If you do that much beautiful quill work, you don�t put it on cloth. You put it on mountain goat hide. Then when the shirt is too dirty or worn out, then you go to deer, then if you are really hard up you put it on cow. And then you can put it on muslin-- that�s what they did" here.
"This Doesn't Look Like a Collector's Collection"
This was George's response upon his first view of shirts and dresses in the Harold Case collection. George was right-- Harold Case was a reverend, not a collector. The entire Case collection has over 300 Three Affiliated Tribes' items, including moccasins, dresses, shirts, warbonnets, belts, and bags. Reverend Case donated to the CU Museum items he had accumulated over time through gifts, purchases, and items left as collateral for loans. This was not as systematic a collecting effort like, for instance, Joe Ben Wheat's textile collection at the CU museum.
The Three Affiliated Tribes -- Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara-- and the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation
The first question you might ask is, who are the Three Affiliated Tribes? Why are these three tribes grouped together? And how and why did they all come to live on the Fort Berthold Reservation?
"Three Affiliated Tribes" became the official name for the unified Mandan, Hidatsa (or Gros Ventre), and Arikara (or Sahnish, as they preferred to be called) tribes in 1934 when a tribal constitution was created and then adopted in 1936 under the Indian Reorganization Act. The Three Affiliated Tribes had come to live together since the mid-19th Century in order to survive after their tribal populations had been drastically reduced in number through disease, intertribal warfare with the Dakota Sioux, and other hardships. Representatives from all three tribes, along with multiple other Plains tribes, signed the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1851. In 1870, the Fort Berthold Reservation was established by the US government.
The Three Affiliated Tribes government explains on its website (where you can find more historical information),
Each tribe maintained separate bands, clan systems, and separate ceremonial bundles. After the devastation of the small pox epidemics of 1792, 1836, and 1837, homogenous societies evolved for economic and social survival. The three tribes lived in earth lodges, were farmers, hunted wild game and relied heavily on the buffalo for food, shelter, [and] clothing... They maintained a vast trading system and were considered middlemen by neighboring tribes with different types of trade products. (MHN 2010)
The Missouri River passes through the center of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation which is located in the northwest region of the state of North Dakota. A number of famous travelers interacted with the Three Affiliated Tribes as they passed through this region for exploration and trade (Lewis and Clark, 1804-05), to create artworks about the peoples, landscapes and fauna of the West (George Catlin, 1832; Karl Bodimer and Prince Maximillian ,1833-34; John James Audubon, 1842-43), and for military exercises (George Armstrong Custer, 1876).
From the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 to present day, the land base owned by the Three Affiliated Tribes was reduced from 12,500,000 to 457,837 acres. The Three Affiliated Tribes is a sovereign nation that today has its own constitution, government, police force, and health and education programs. There are around 4,000 people living on the reservation and around 12,000 enrolled as tribal members. A casino opened in 1993, along with rights to oil and mineral resources, have become ways for the Nation to provide means for economic development, the support of health and wellness and education services, and the construction of a new cultural center in 2003.
Rev. Harold Case and the Garrison Dam
Ties to language, cultural practices, spiritual practices, and families were all being systematically undermined through the continuing US government policies of assimilation at the time Harold Case came to the Fort Berthold Reservation in the 1920s. As a missionary, Reverend Case was part of a larger movement to bring a "civilizing" influence to Native American peoples that was an additional way to break up Indian communities.
Missionaries have been complex figures, both positive and negative, in Indian history and in the history of Fort Berthold in particular. Missionaries were supported by the Office of Indian Affairs in their efforts to convert Native people to Christianity and were authorized to punish people� jailing them or cutting their hair� for conducting their own spiritual practices. Harold and Eva Case arrived at Elbowoods on the Fort Berthold Reservation in 1922. While they began with a mission to prepare people living on the reservation to "live in the white world," they grew to also interpret Native experience to outsiders and to advocate on their behalf. Harold Case helped the Three Affiliated Tribes to form the Indian Defense Association and began a letter-writing campaign against a dam that, in 1948, created the Garrison Dam reservoir and that devastatingly flooded the bottomlands of the tribes' territory, inundated 2,000 homes on the reservation, and resulted in a forced relocation of tribal members to other areas on the reservation. The dam, completed in 1953, covered 155,000 acres.
The US government paid compensation to the Three Affiliated Tribes for breaches of treaties. An Associated Press photograph that George suggested I view shows the Three Affiliated Tribes tribal chairman, George Gillette, sitting at a table surrounded by nine Native and non-Native men standing behind him in suits as he signs the agreements that release the lands for the Garrison Dam. In the background and to the right of Chairman Gillette, a tribal member in a pin striped suit has removed his glasses in one hand while the other covers his eyes as he cries with his head bowed. He is reported to have said, "'The truth is, as everyone knows... our Treaty of Fort Laramie...and our constitution are being torn to shreds by this contract'" (Berman 1988).
References and Selected Further Reading
Horse Capture, George P. 2001. Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts. Washington, DC: National Museum of the American Indian.
History and culture of the Three Affiliated Tribes Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation: Resource Guide. (1994). New Town, ND: Three Affiliated Tribes.
Accessed May 17, 2010.
Maxfield, Christyann. 1986. Goodbye to Elbowoods: The Story of Harold and Eva Case. Bismark: State Historical Society of North Dakota.
* Secondary References
Berman, Terri. 1988. "For the Taking: The Garrison Dam and the Tribal Taking Area" in Cultural Survival Quartlery (12.2): Hydroelectric Dams and Indigenous Peoples. Available at:
Accessed May 17, 2010.
Digital Horizons: A Plains Media Resource is a searchable website that includes archival photographs of Elbowoods and more from the State Historical Society of North Dakota: http://digitalhorizonsonline.org/index.php
Discovering Lewis and Clark is a website that in part shows the incremental reductions of the Fort Berthold Reservation over time: