Crow shirts are characterized by a specific and sophisticated use of color and design. There is predominant use of light blue and dusty pink and white outline, which was meant to draw attention to color and design. Paul Dyck further notes: “Crow beadwork is famous for its richness of composition and color. At the same time, it reflects the beauty of a world filled with sacred power and life: pink symbolizes the shade of the Sun’s first glowing in the morning; blue represents the sky; green is the color of the earth; the great Mother of all; yellow the color of the East, the place of the Sun’s rising. Thus, Crow artists, in using these colors, honored Mother Earth and the Sun who brings forth endless new life from her body, for the blessing of the Crow people and their world" (Powell, 1988:11).
For a discussion of Men's shirts see Barbara A. Hail, Hau, Kola, Brown University, 1980, p. 68: "When Lewis and Clark described the everyday attire of Arikara men in 1804 they made no mention of the best-known article of Plains male dress, the warshirt, probably because they did not see it. Until the mid-nineteenth-century shirts were worn only by distinguished leaders as a kind of honorary emblem (Wissler, 1975:103).
The earliest Plains shirts were made in poncho style (Wissler, 1975:51) of two skins of deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, or small buffalo. These ponchos have been called "binary" (Conn, 1974:59), since they contain two main sections, front and back, made of two skins matched for their size and shape. The two skins were cut across just below the fore-legs and sewn together to form the shoulder line, leaving a slit for the neck. The upper part of each skin was folded or cut along the spine and used as a sleeve, with the long fore-legs retained as decorative dangles. Sleeves and sides were open, and the hind legs hung below the hemline on either side, often retaining their fur and dewclaws, especially in honorary or society shirts. The skin that had covered the head of the animal was retained as a rectangular or triangular flap at the neck. These neck flaps were eventually copied in cloth and came to be decorated with quills or beads.
The honorary shirt of the 1800s, sometimes called a deer-leg shirt or warshirt, continued to be made and worn during the second half of the nineteenth century, after shirts had become more common apparel for men. Decorated shirts were made for them by older leaders, with ornamentation representing the young men's individual triumphs, and the shirts were presented in a formal investiture ceremony. The Shirt-Wearers were expected to act as leaders in council as well as in battle, and to be mindful always of the well-being of the tribe as a whole.
Certain construction features suggest dating this shirt between 1860 and 1870. In Colin Taylor’s study, “The Crow Ceremonial Shirt”, he states “Because a bighorn hide is very broad, there was an overlap of the sleeve with the body hide. Most early Crow shirts exhibit this overlap, although shortly after 1870 many were made without it. The specific reason for this change is unknown, but it may have been caused by the increasing difficulty to obtain bighorn skins, and alternative skin types – such as antelope or deer – had a width considerably less than that of the bighorn” (Taylor, 2001:43). The subject shirt has this overlap of the sleeve with the body so it can be can concluded that the hide is bighorn sheep and the date is before 1870.
Crow shirts could only be worn by men who had been successful in warfare. William Wildschut interviewed a number of old Crow warriors during the 1920’s while working for George Heye. He reported that “Striking an enemy, the most important of the four major coups, entitled the shirt-wearer to attach to it the four decorated strips which were quilled in the early days and later were beaded, and which were sewn across the shoulders and to the sleeves. It was a great distinction among the Crows to be able to wear a war shirt. Even today (1927) no Crow will publicly wear a war shirt unless he is entitled to it. There is no hereditary right to the wearing of such a garment.” (Wildschut,1960:38).
Other elements on this shirt are symbolic of the warrior ethos. The black paint that can be noted on the shirt body and sleeves is specifically related to war deeds: “Warriors always blackened their faces to symbolize the killing of an enemy, so that ‘with black face’ is a stereotyped phrase for a victorious return.” Further, “The first man to capture a gun and the first coup-striker had their robe or shirt blackened all over, the second and third men had only half of their garment so decorated, and the fourth men had only the arms of their shirts painted. The distinguished men also instructed the members as to other decorations; thus there would be horse tracks, parallel stripes, and, irrespective of the number of enemies struck, from four to six roughly sketched human figures” (Lowie, 1935:225). The amount and variety of black painting on this shirt indicates the owner distinguished himself in battle on many occasions. A large square block on the front is painted black along with thicker, horizontal, black painted stripes and small black circles at the edges, likely signifying dodged bullets. The back of the shirt is again black painted as well as with a series of vertical black stripes in groups of four. Also, parallel vertical black stripes in groups of four are very clear beneath the bibs. Their exact significance is not known but it fits in with Lowie’s account. Black paint decorates the left arm and both black paint and parallel stripes of black paint decorate the right arm.
The ermine skin (winter weasel) fringes that decorate the bibs, shoulder, and sleeve strips speak to the fierce aggression and cunning of the weasel, traits the warrior would emulate.
Sotheby’s gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Richard J. Pohrt Jr. towards the analysis of this shirt and some of the research and writing in this essay.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale