A cloak, or outer draped garment that looks like a cape, was used by almost every Native American tribe since the beginning of their civilizations. Made of a square, circular, or rectangular piece of cloth, a cloak was most often pinned at the neck and draped over the shoulders and hung down the back to the ankles. Another style of cloak was made out of a piece of cloth with a hole cut in the center for the head and looked like a modern poncho. Cloaks could be made of antelope, buffalo, caribou, deer, rabbit, whale, or other animal skin, mulberry bark, or of woven buffalo or coyote hair. During the earliest years of civilization on the North American continent, inhabitants often wore no covering on their upper bodies except for cloaks on cold or rainy days. By the seventeenth century cloaks continued to be used as outer garments. However, cloaks were no longer the only covering for the upper body. Men wore tunics, or shirts, and women wore dresses to cover their upper bodies.
Cloaks could be simple outerwear for both women and men, but they could also be prized status symbols for some. Buffalo cloaks, or robes, were worn by many tribes but were prized possessions of those in the Great Basin (a desert region in the western United States), and on the Plains and the Plateau. The Cheyenne of the Plains especially valued cloaks made of white buffalo. Sioux Indians of the Plains decorated their buffalo robes with painted symbols to indicate their age, sex, marital status, and tribal status, among other things. Sioux men trying to find a wife wore buffalo robes with horizontal strips that featured four medallions; they also painted red handprints on their cloaks if they had been wounded in battle or black handprints if they had killed an enemy. In California only very wealthy men wore cloaks made of feathers, and waterproof turkey feather cloaks were highly prized among the Delaware Indians of the Northeast.
As Native Americans began trading with Europeans, they slowly began adopting Western styles of dress. Cloaks were soon replaced with blankets and then sewn jackets.
Hofsinde, Robert. Indian Costumes. New York: William Morrow, 1968.
Hungry Wolf, Adolf. Traditional Dress: Knowledge and Methods of Old-Time Clothing. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Co., 1990.
Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1994.