Native American Clothing History - What did Native people wear? answers questions
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Native American Clothing

blackfoot shirt
A traditional Blackfoot men's shirt

Nearly all the clothing that people wore in North America was made of animal skins (usually deerhide), or of bark or wild plants.

Cheyenne buckskin dress
Cheyenne buckskin dress

Most women in North America wore dresses sewn out of deerskin, sometimes with leggings made out of deerskin. They often wrapped another deerskin around themselves to keep warm. Women spun and wove nettle fibers (this is like working with flax) to make softer under-shirts to wear under their dresses. Other women went topless and just wore leggings and skirts.

Most men wore leggings and breechclouts made out of deerskin. When it was cold they wore deerskin robes. It was hard to get enough deerskins for everyone, so most people only had one outfit, and some poor people and children didn't own any clothes. Most people tried to make their clothes last as long as possible by not wearing them whenever it was warm enough, or if they were working hard. Sometimes women wore cheaper grass skirts to save their deerskin clothes.

Jesuits and Eastern Native Americans
Some East Coast people listening to
a Jesuit priest (1600s AD)

The Pueblo people of the south-west did grow cotton, which they had gotten originally from the Maya or Aztec people south of them. They spun and wove this cotton into clothes. Men wore kilts (skirts) and women wore dresses, and they both wore ankle-high leather moccasins. Their cotton clothes were more appropriate to the hot weather of the south-west (modern Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico).

People also showed what group they belonged to with their hairstyles. For instance, men who lived on the East Coast - like the Algonquins, the Cherokee, and the Iroquois - shaved most of the hair off their head and left only a little hair at the top of their head (today we call this a Mohawk or a Mohican after two of the groups that did this). But men who lived in the Plains - like the Sioux or the Blackfeet - kept their hair in two long braids along the side of their head. Pueblo men cut their hair off at neck-length.

Chinook woman and baby
Chinook woman and her baby, about 1841

Most women wore their hair long, often in one long braid down their back, but Chinook women, for instance, cut theirs to shoulder length.

Pearl necklace
Pearl necklace from Craig Mound, Spiro
(modern Oklahoma), ca. 1300 AD

People also used jewelry as part of their clothing. They often traded long distances to get special pearls or shells or copper to make into beads.

Bibliography and further reading about Native American clothing:

More about Native cotton
North American clothing after 1500
Native Americans home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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For May Day, read about the history of working people all over the world, starting with ancient Egyptian farmers and wetnurses. How did farming push people into debt and slavery? Move on to ancient West Asian miners, Chinese silk-workers, and the Indian caste system. Read about African-American slavery, sugar plantations, and the Industrial Revolution. Then go march for May Day!