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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 9, 2003 - Issue 93


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Ribbon Shirts

gathered by Richie Plass
credits: art Pleasures of the Heart by Virginia Stroud

I had posted a question a while back asking, "What is a Ribbon Shirt?" Or, as some people who responded to my post, "What is the origin of the Ribbon Shirt?" The main reason I asked this question was because I was asked this very question and when I stumbled for the "proper" response, two people gave two different answers. That got me to thinking...I wonder how many other versions and/or stories are out there concerning this subject. What follows are the responses that were sent to me.

I am not going to post any names of the people who sent me their stories. I greatly appreciate everyone's responses to my request, but the main topic I was concerned with was that of Ribbon Shirts and not to identify people. I am of the opinion that there are so many versions of so many stories on many different subjects that the main focus should be on the topic and not who told the stories. If anyone feels different, that's fine. I feel that for the purpose of my article names are the least viable subject.

Pleasures of the Heart by Virginia Stroud


"I have heard ribbon shirts were made from calico cloth that was obtained from trading posts and were originally used as part of their regalia during pow wows and celebrations."


I am told by the Cherokee clothing historian that the ribbon shirt we know is from the Anglo dress shirt that was originally done east of the Mississippi and went westward with the Cherokee when they got to Oklahoma. It was a loose blouse fit and the sleeves resemble the sleeves of the tear dress. It is made of calico and uses grosgrain ribbon not satin. The shirts (the myth goes) were designed similar to the dress because of the lack of scissors and thus fashioned that way. The shirt was approved by the Cherokee Nation in 1978 when the tear dress became the official Regalia. I am told the myth is probably not true but that the reasoning behind it maybe. Some say the shirt was actually made for children as a dress remember the fashion of the time) and eventually became a shirt when the male child grew. The difference I am told for Cherokee is the grosgrain or cotton ribbon as opposed to satin, the ruffle on the end of the cuff, and the Cherokee shirt has longer ribbon. Hope this helps."


"Ribbon Shirts...from what I know, they're common to many tribes from east to west, popular with both men and women since the introduction of trade cloth. One story I heard is that they're a modern version of an old trade convention, that when tribes met to trade, the tribes would exchange shirts as a matter of respect, particularly when medicines were traded.

"This blurb comes from a 2000 NAMI (Smithsonian) exhibition:

"'The power and aesthetics of these shirts reflect the compelling lives and histories of the women who fashioned the garments, the men who wore the shirts in battle and in peace, and the diverse life forces of the vast Great Plains,' says W. Richard West (Southern Cheyenne), director of the National Museum of the American Indian. National Museum of the American Indian curator George Horse Capture (Gros Ventre) and his son Joseph Horse Capture (Gros Ventre), a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, worked together not only as fellow scholars, but also as father and son, to provide this exhibition with an illuminating wealth of insight and information. To them and to the Native communities that they visited and learned from, we are very grateful.

"These shirts served many purposes beyond their obvious use as clothing. In 19th-century communities from southern Canada to northern Texas, the shirts were made to honor warriors and tribal leaders, to adorn spiritual leaders, as well as to channel animal power.

"The Imagery on the shirts depicted important events, including battles, and served to educate youth about the common values of shirt-wearers-generosity, honor, and bravery. Today the Plains shirt lives on in regalia worn at powwows and community celebrations, and in shirts and jackets made to honor achievements in sports and academia."


As I understand it, a ribbon shirt is a shirt that has a shirt, very flaunty, that has pieces of fabric sewed upon it that fly like ribbons. Think of a Peacock that spreads it's feathers to look so wonderful! You can also go to Google and search for Ribbon Shirt American Indian. You can also talk to traditional Cherokee, (maybe other tribes or clans), to get your answer. There is a Twinkie site that you can go to that might give you an answer. that might give you an answer. In case you do not know what a Twinkie means, it means to the traditional NDN's, "Want to be" or even, "Mixed bloods NDN's. You might have to to Google search Manataka. Though it is a so called, "Twinkie Site", it is still a good site as far as this one is concerned. That is the best I can tell you for now. If you have no luck then try contacting the Cherokee Tribe under Chad Smith in Oklahoma. Perhaps you should try to go there first.


"Greetings. I believe you will find that the ribbons are the symbolic replacement of offerings of small slivers of one's own flesh as a self-sacrifice for a particular ceremony. These pieces of flesh were formerly wrapped in tiny bundles and sewn onto a shirt. The ribbons look similar to the bundles and are now standard fare, the original meaning having been almost lost.

"John Fire Lame Deer used to say, 'White Christians let Jesus do the suffering for them, but Indians give their own flesh, taking the suffering upon themselves, making a sacrificial altar of their own bodies. If we offer the Creator a horse, tobacco bundles, food for the needy, we are making him a present of something he already owns. Everything on this Earth has been created by Wakan Tanka and is a part of him. It is only our flesh, our blood, our pain, that is a real sacrifice, a real giving of ourselves. How can we give anything else?'"


"The Cherokee Ribbon Shirt was, as far as I can find out, created shortly after European contact, it was patterned after the drop sleeve shirt. There is no significance to the color of the shirt and/or ribbons."


"The ribbons were first added to flour sacks that were part of Native rations during the first start of the res time. The sacks were so dull looking that the skins started to sew ribbons on them to make them look better. This went in line with the skins keeping the traditions as artisans. Then the more contemporary ribbon shirt was introduced at the liberation of Wounded Knee in 1973 by the AIM women. They made shirts for the leadership during that time sewing on the color ribbons. Now it is part of all Indian's apparel."


"There is no side to the ribbon shirt. It is a contemporary work of art. I have yet to see a ribbon shirt I don't like. They are all beautiful. No tribe owns them, they belong to the one who chooses to wear them. Their origin can be traced back to any upper body covering of any tribe."


"I was told that the shirts were originally made for the children in the Indian schools, to give them a less-than obvious link to their people. I'm not sure if this story will hold up, given the strick effort that was made to separate the children from their origins. Most of the pictures I have seen are of uniforms that remove any uniqueness from the children."


"To me ribbon shirts are an Indian Spiritual formal wear. A way of showing respect at ceremonies. As to the origin I haven't a clue other than I do know that the Potawatomi people seem to go way back with wearing ribbon shirts at ceremonies. I would like to see what different spins are out there on the origin of the ribbon shirt so please post them if you would."


"Wendell Cochran, who has designed the tear (not pronounced like crying, but like ripping) dress for the Oklahoma Miss Cherokee Princess for years, and is a voluminous historian who said that when the white settlers moved into Cherokee country, their clothing was very simple. Both the frontierman's shirt and his wife's dress were made of squares and rectangles, as they could be torn from a bolt of fabric. The cotton ribbon was common trade goods as well. The fondness of calico fabric was developed when the English took 6 leaders to meet the King of England in the early 1700's, and they were made to wear turbans made of calico cloth so as to not look like such savages (their heads were shaved with only a pony-tail on top). These chiefs liked the colors and fabric so much, they brought the custom back and the use of this fabric spread rapidly among both men and women. He also pointed out that originally, calico was only two colors, with a very simple pattern. As the dying of fabric improved over the years, three and four color cloth became available. Therefore paintings with only 2 colored fabric indicates the picture was painted in the early 1700's."


"We were told it was an adaptation of the "hair shirt". The Buckskin one that had pieces of hair (scalps?) hanging from it, instead of ribbons."


"I don't know a whole lot about ribbon shirts. I do know that the Cherokee are one Nation to take credit for it. I don't know where they originated for sure though because I've seen historical pictures from other parts of the country that depict the men wearing them as well. I think they simply go back to traded shirts that were embellished by Indian women to make our menfolk look fine."


"I was once told by an Elder (Woman) Kwew, when I asked the question about Ribbon Shirts. She told me that it was to take the place of the Ghost Dance Shirts because they were so sacred that we did not want the white man to see or touch them. So we started making ribbon shirts out of calico?? Be interested to see what others know."


"Here is my two cents worth ... I think the answer is much simpler than those previously submitted.

1. Decorated clothing has always been a feature. The desire/need to look "GOOD" for public occasions ... ceremonies, battles, snagging, etc., is a fact of life. Your Momma never let you go to school in dirty clothes and underwear.

2. Cloth was adopted for clothing as soon as it became available. After all, cloth does not require A WHOLE LOT OF WORK before it is suitable for clothing. Hides, on the other hand, (as far as we all know) require lots of work before it can be used comfortably ... skinning, scraping, tanning. smoking...

So, from where I sit, "Ribbon Shirts" are simply modern, cheaper, and very much easier to construct, versions of decorated hide clothing.

One might also reason that the decorated clothing came about for two reasons...the need to look "GOOD" and, as we all know, the act of decorating clothing requires lots of time, a great cure for "cabin fever."


"My take on it would be the updated version of the buckskin shirt dating back to the days when Indians were first imprisoned on the reservations and the only material they had access to was the calico that was distributed as part of their rations. I know this is how the "tear-cloth" grass dance outfit came about as well as did some of the jingle dresses that were made from the cans or tins distributed among the rations. I'm thinking it more than likely could have come about in the same way."


"From what I understand, the ribbon shirts came to us from out west. I was told that years ago in Lakota territory, the Lakota people would make special shirts with ribbons on them for their men who could speak English. By doing this, as government officials, traders and settlers came into contact with the Lakota people, they knew these were the one's who spoke English and they could begin their communication."

Well, that's about it. I know this is rather lengthly, but out of respect to everyone who submitted stories to me, I felt each story had to be posted. I am impressed with the various versions and origins. But this only goes to validate what I have been taught over and over again about our ways...each tribe and Nation have their own distinct story. These stories, in my opinion are what make and keep us Indian.

In conclusion I would say this. Ribbon Shirts are a show of honor, respect, heritage, pride and identification. With over 550 different tribes and Nations here on Turtle Island, I am proud knowing our traditions are alive and well here in the 21st Century.

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