Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History
Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History
Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History

* Book Type:

Not Available Online
Publisher: Firefly Books

Author Statement: by Theodore Brasser
Audience: Trade
Specs: full-color and black-and-white photographs throughout, further reading, maps, index
Pages: 368
Trim Size: 9" x 11"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20090824
Copyright Year: 2009
Price: Select Below

Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History

More than five centuries of native peoples' artistry.

More than five centuries of native peoples' artistry.

Native Americans crafted beautiful clothing out of skins, pigment, quills and sinew. The collection of photographs in this outstanding reference celebrates this decorative genius. Many of the 300 photographs from more than 60 leading museums and private collections have never been published previously.

The book describes the clothing in fascinating detail, from moccasins and tunics to sashes, bags and ceremonial and burial costumes. Theodore Brasser explains who made what and how, as well as the meanings of the different kinds of decoration, such as beadwork, embroidery, appliqué, patchwork, weaving and dyeing. There are also many examples of native pottery and other historic artifacts that depict themes used in the clothes.

Native American Clothing provides a thorough historical background of the many influences on this clothing, including:

  • Mythology
  • Social status
  • Political standing
  • Wealth
  • Climate
  • Geography
  • Contact with European settlers.

The book covers the entire North American continent and is organized by tribal groups and regions:

  • Southeast
  • Northern east coast
  • Eastern Great Lakes
  • Eastern sub-Arctic
  • Great Lakes
  • Plains
  • Southwest
  • Plateau/desert
  • California
  • Northwest coast
  • Western sub-Arctic
  • Arctic.

Numerous maps show the ranges of the tribes and convey how trade and travel spread cultural themes.

With authoritative text and art-quality color reproductions, Native American Clothing will be important to collectors and historians and will also appeal to general readers.


Theodore Brasser was a curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, professor of art history at Carleton University and professor of anthropology at Trent University. He has written extensively for American Indian Art magazine and numerous museum and scholarly publications.



Climate change has forced itself upon us, more than we might ever have imagined in our wildest dreams. But climate change is not something new, though it has previously run its course beyond the time frames of our human experience. Some 40,000 years ago, as the last ice age was slowly coming to an end, enormous glaciers were retreating northward, followed by large herds of mammoths, wild horses and reindeer. Always following the game, mankind was spreading into Asia from its original residence in warmer regions. Most probably these people protected themselves against the hot sun and windburn by rubbing their bodies with animal grease mixed with red ocher. This ancient means of body protection survived for untold centuries in many parts of the world. Stimulated by a psychological need that animals do not experience, these people adopted various types of body adornment. Body painting and tattooing satisfied vanity and denoted status and prestige long before these roles were taken over by garments.

Vaguely noticeable in the shadows of the past, these people gradually spread northward. The need for protection from the cold climate is what first brought about the invention of clothing. Bone awls and needles found in ancient campsites are evidence of the tailored clothing of the hardy hunters. In order to survive on the northern tundra, they wore furs and tanned hides that were sewn with waterproof seams. The need for protection from the cold climate initiated the invention of clothing. Secondary reasons played a role in much later cultural developments. The construction of garments was undoubtedly the work of women, who took care of the camp while the men were out hunting. This gender-based division of labor in daily occupations may have led to the differences in dress between men and women.

The nomadic bands, widely scattered in the vast expanse of new land, gradually developed the cultural equipment to survive in the sub-arctic environment of Siberia. While they gathered and dispersed with the seasonal movements of the game herds, some of these people moved east over the course of many generations. Following the game, they entered a wide valley, later called Beringia by our archaeologists. Beringia does not exist anymore; about 14,000 years ago the rising temperatures started to melt the glacial ice, causing the ocean levels to rise. The submerged valley separated Siberia from Alaska and became the present-day Bering Strait. From Siberia, the New World is visible some 55 miles in the distance.

As single families and in small bands, people found their way across Beringia, first across the dry land, followed by others across the ice during the long winters, and in later times, in skin-covered boats. For thousands of years the wandering hunters kept coming, unaware they were entering another continent. They merely remembered that their ancestors had once lived in a more eastern valley or beyond the distant mountains. These migrations involved various groups of different physical types who would have been strangers to each other. The earliest immigrants may have represented mankind before the emergence of the modern races; Mongolian features increased among later arrivals.

It was probably about 25,000 years ago that the first trickle of these people crossed Beringia, to remain in the ice-free parts of western Alaska for a long time. The interior and all of Canada was still covered by glacial ice. However, about 14,000 years ago, an ice-free route opened up along the Pacific coast, followed by a similar corridor along the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains. Along these two routes, the first immigrants moved south. Some daring pioneers appear to have reached present-day Pennsylvania 16,000 years ago; 6,000 years after that, people had reached the southern tip of South America. As periodic markers along this endless river of time, these people left us their stone and bone tools, bark sandals in an Oregon cave, fragments of basketry, and their own bones. These clues tell an increasingly detailed story of a diversity of intelligent ways of life.

By 10,000 years ago, scattered populations lived in every corner of North America. The big game of the ice age had vanished and caribou, buffalo, sea mammals and fish became major food sources. While gathering edible wild plants, roots, berries and seeds, some women discovered the germination of such seeds and the growing of plants for food. Horticulture of squash, maize and beans emerged in Central America about 5,000 years ago and spread into the southern parts of North America, enabling the people to settle in permanent villages. The impact of these economic developments is apparent in the garments they wore, particularly in the predominant use of hide clothing by the nomadic hunters and in the woven fiber materials used by the farming people.

Europeans may have "discovered" North America several times before Christopher Columbus came ashore, believing he had arrived in India. As a result, we still identify the aboriginal people of North America as "Indians," which is a term equivalent in its generality as the terms "Europeans" or "Africans." With each of these terms we refer to a great variety of different peoples. The description of the Arctic population as "Eskimo" is a mere accident in the history of northern exploration; they are as much part of the North American aboriginal population as the Indians are.

Ethnic labels have become a sensitive issue since the 1960s. The term "Native Americans" has become popular in the United States, and Canadian Indian leaders have promoted the term "First Nations."

However, official terminology tends to separate itself from the language of ordinary people. In my contacts with Indians, I have found that few of them are interested in such artificial problems. Tony Hillerman once attended an intertribal conference where this tortured subject came up. The verdict of the Indians was unanimous: Indians call each other Indians, unless the name of a specific tribe is in order. One native participant was greatly relieved that Columbus had not thought he had landed on the Virgin Islands! Following the consensus among the people in question, I use the terms "Indian" and "native" interchangeably. In order to avoid confusion for the reader I will also retain the tribal names conventionally used in the literature, though most of these names are the final products of baffling corruptions of native terms.

In the early European-contact period of the 1500s, the total population of North America was an estimated 12 million people; these people spoke a greater variety of languages than anywhere else in the world. The more than 500 languages were derived from 12 major language families, as different from each other as German and Chinese. Any possible relationship with languages in Asia has been lost in the many thousand years of separation.

The European discovery of North America was a major event in the history of mankind. Never again will we experience such an unexpected meeting with long-lost relatives, not that we our common humanity was immediately recognized. In 1512, the Pope proclaimed that the Indians were children of Adam and Eve, and should be respected as human beings. But the New World was far beyond the control of the Pope and other authorities. What appeared to the Micmac Indians to be bears on a floating island turned out to be bearded white strangers on a big ship. And invariably the European visitors mentioned in their early accounts of the native people that "they go naked except that at the private parts they wear some skins of little animals."

In large parts of North America, daily clothing was indeed minimal. Fully tailored or fitted garments were largely restricted to the arctic and subarctic regions. Yet it is in the other regions that we find the most spectacular development of festive or ceremonial dress, revealing the owner's social status, cult membership, military rank or simply his or her wealth. Pressured by the disapproval of white people, the Indians soon learned to keep their bodies covered.

Artistic expression was well developed among all these native peoples, though they lived in a social context that did not recognize art as something separate from the production of useful garments and utensils. Aesthetic norms were an inseparable component in the creation of functional objects; there was no art for art's sake. Local art styles proclaimed one's tribal identity. Crafts were part of the daily work assigned to men and women, divided according to the conventional domains of their economic activities. In most regions there were no professional artists, though elderly people tended to be more active in these respects, thereby making up for their withdrawal from more strenuous work. Obviously, some people of a strong creative inclination developed a recognized expertise, but that did not exclude them from other work. Accordingly, this book will not deal strictly with "art." The creativity evident in the beautiful garments related to the people's reflections upon the environment as they experienced it and their imagination in dealing with their changing world.

Population numbers and languages suffered a severe decline after the arrival of the Europeans. Unwittingly the latter introduced a host of infectious diseases for which the native people had no immunity. Generation after generation, epidemics ravaged the coastal regions and extinguished whole communities, while refugees carried the microbes even farther inland. These epidemics not only decimated the population, but also undermined their political and cultural structures. Most probably, even the earliest historical records present us with Indians who had become accustomed to contact with Europeans and who were by then a mere remnant of earlier populations. Their way of life had already changed due to earlier and unrecorded contacts.

Most of the native peoples had been living for centuries in the areas where they were found by the early European explorers. The tribal units in each of these so-called "culture areas" resembled each other to some extent in their economy, social organization, religious worldview and historical experiences. At least, they had culturally more in common with each other than with people living beyond their culture area. This somewhat vaguely defined concept of culture area is as arbitrary as the drawing of boundaries for each of these areas, because in reality there has always been gradual culture change from one area to another. However, for our purposes, the concept enables us to recognize the typical configuration of worldview, economy, arts and crafts of each region.

As the European frontier moved across the continent, the native people responded to the impact with remarkable creativity in their experiments with the goods imported by the white traders. Cloth, beads and silver ornaments were adapted to native fashions, and elements of European folk art inspired developments in the native art traditions. Obviously, the Indian women played a major role in these innovations. Their creativity is documented and preserved in the rich collections of the historic era.

When the fur traders moved on to more profitable regions, the white settlers moved in. With the ensuing loss of their land, the Indians lost their traditional subsistence way of life and were exposed to the full impact of white civilization. Starting in the 18th century, much of native creativity was used to serve the growing tourist market. Traditional costumes functioned to maintain an Indian identity, in defiance of the many pressures emanating from the dominant society.

The circumstances that led to the collecting and preservation of native arts and crafts is a fascinating story in which Europeans and Euro-Americans have unwittingly left us a remarkable record of their own worldview. During the age of exploration and colonial expansion, the European elite considered the American Indian a symbol of everything noble and "natural," and Indian-made objects and apparel became objects of marvel and contemplation. Sailors, fur traders, missionaries, military people and nearly everyone else connected with the exploration and settlement of the New World gathered examples of native arts and crafts. Private collectors among the European elite compared and exchanged these curios with each other as we used to do with coins and stamps. Some of their collections became the nucleus of the first public museums during the 19th century. This insatiable curiosity about human life in faraway places and other times is an ancient and distinct feature of Western society, a curiosity that made white people seem distinctly odd to most other peoples. In the 1880s, Edward W. Nelson was named "the buyer of good-for-nothing things" by the local Eskimos of western Alaska. He gathered an irreplaceable collection of their utensils and garments, now in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Not all those collections ended up in museums. Occasionally they come up at auctions, to be dispersed among new generations of collectors and tribal art dealers. Efforts by American and Canadian museums to repatriate such artifacts to their country of origin made people aware of these objects as a source of investment, comparable to other forms of art. Without this market activity, much of this material would have remained in the attics of families who have often owned it for many generations. Many of these beautiful examples of Indian art are now circulating among dealers and private collectors and are seldom on public exhibition. In the planning of this book, we have made serious efforts to include some of these unique pieces.

The decision to use these private sources defined the period covered in this book: much of the Indian art in these collections was created before the end of the 19th century. Far from marking the demise of native creativity, more than ever before the later art developments are interrelated with the non-Indian art market. The complex context of contemporary Indian art, and the desire of modern Indian artists to contribute to global art developments, deserves its own publication.

T.J. Brasser


Introduction / Crossing Beringia

1 / In the Land of Corn Mother - Southeast
2 / The People of Dawnland - Northern East Coast
3 / Living on the Turtle's Back - Eastern Great Lakes
4 / Pleasing the Spirits - Eastern Sub-Arctic
5 / Between Sky and Underwater - Great Lakes
6 / By the Power of Their Dreams - Plains
7 / Born from This Earth - Southwest
8 / Of Diggers and Prophets - Plateau / Desert
9 / Paradise Lost - California
10 / In Celebration of Wealth - Northwest Coast
11 / Caribou - Western Sub-Arctic
12 / Hunters of the Arctic Coasts - Arctic

Photo Credits

Author Events   Firefly Books Fall 2021 Catalog PDF