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Woodlands Shirt: Technology enhancing art and history

Posted on by Minneapolis Institute of Arts

This recently acquired Native American shirt was created in the Great Lakes region of North America in the 18th century. Early French explorers traded with Native American tribes in the area the French called New France (1534–1763). These explorers sent Native American objects back to France, where collectors housed them in kunstkammer (cabinet of curiosities). Some of these objects—including this shirt—were dispersed throughout Europe during the French Revolution. Fewer than 35 objects from the early 1700s, decorated with abstract painting from the Great Lakes and/or Eastern Plains regions, survive in European collections. The repeating designs on the front sleeves of this shirt are similar to those on Native American hide paintings at Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

Hides collected near the Great Lakes in the first half of the 18th century have been attributed to the Illinois Confederacy, a loose group of several tribes from the Lake Michigan area. The elongated pointed symbols on the shirt are also similar to Plains hide painting and early tattooing.

The abstracted designs on the body may reference the Thunderbird, an important character in traditional stories. The long painted designs at the ends of the sleeves and on the chest may symbolize feathers or lightning, the trademark of the Thunderbird. Clearly, Native artists practiced artistic abstraction as well as narrative styles. Although it will never be known exactly what tribe made this shirt, the Dakota used two design traditions, one from the Great Lakes region and the other from the Plains. This places the shirt in Minnesota nearly 300 years ago.

The pullover shirt tells a story, readable from wear marks and perspiration stains. Like shirts from the early 19th century, this one was carefully made, and may have been used for a special ceremony and/or a person of high status. The artist had full command of her cultural artistic style. Infrared photography shows a slight error the artist made when outlining one of the designs.

On the second design from the right the artist apparently made a vertical line a bit longer than planned. Also, there is an area on the sleeve left unpainted.An ultraviolet photograph shows the paint is unrestored, and indicates it was all painted at the same time. The three white areas are relatively new stains and the white thread near the fringe is also are newer. All of the sinew originally holding the seams was replaced by thread at some point in the object’s life, probably within the past 100 years.

Today’s technology gives us tools to help interpret the stories embedded in an object. This rare and exquisite shirt has many stories to tell, and is currently on view in the Bob and Carolyn Nelson Gallery (260).

For more information, see the State of the Arts article.



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