War Honors Shirt

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Dakota man's painted hide shirt with fur and horsehair.

Shirts like these are frequently called “war shirts” by Western observers; a more accurate term might be war honors shirt – an object made by Plains women for Plains men that is essentially analogous to a soldier’s formal uniform. This beautiful shirt is composed of pigment-dyed deerskin with heavily beaded epaulets and placket that are edged in a fringe of horsehair and ermine skin. While it is extremely rare to find versions of these shirts older than the mid-18th century since they’re made of organic materials, the tradition is so integral to Plains cultures that it’s likely ancient. As A’aninin (Gros Ventre) scholars Joe and George Horse Capture have aptly written about these objects, “A shirt is a kind of second skin, suggesting the presence of its wearer.”

In this circa 1885 portrait the elderly Cheyenne war leader who fought Custer at Little Big Horn is dressed in his war honors shirt, holding a pipe bag and pipe. The Cheyenne are neighbors and cousins of the Lakota peoples, and were called upon to help in the Lakota’s battles against American aggression. The display of so many objects of esteem on one man indicates the depth of respect held for him by his tribe, as each of them were something a Plains man earned through bravery and acts of dedication to his culture.