The clothing of Native Americans was closely related to the environment in which they lived and their religious beliefs. Ranging from tropical and desert regions, to woodlands and mountains, to Arctic tundra, Native Americans developed diverse styles of clothing. In the warmest regions, little clothing was worn. Among the peoples of California, for example, men were normally naked, but women wore simple knee-length skirts. In the cooler regions, more clothing styles developed. Among the tribes of the Plains, breechclouts, or loincloths, leggings, tunic shirts for men, and skirts and dresses for women were created. But in the coldest areas of the Subarctic and Arctic, warm trousers, hooded anoraks, or jackets, and mittens protected people from freezing temperatures. Despite the vast differences in climate and clothing styles, Native Americans had in common the basic notion of living in harmony with nature. This idea influenced the materials and designs they used for clothing.
Before the European colonization of the Americas that began in the seventeenth century C.E. , most Native American people lived close to nature, making their living from the resources that were plentiful in the world around them. They largely survived by fishing, hunting, and gathering edible plants, though some tribes, such as the Navajo in the southwestern United States and the Oneida of northern New York, tended flocks of sheep or grew crops to add to what they found in nature. Almost all of these tribes used the skins of the animals they hunted or raised. They developed methods of tanning the skins to make soft leather, and from this leather they made clothing and shoes. Leather clothing was soft and strong, and, if the animal's fur was left on the skin, it was also very warm. Some native people, like the Apaches of the western plains and the Algonquin of southern Canada, even used leather to make the walls of their dwelling places.
The religious beliefs of many Indian people included the idea that all of nature, including animals and plants, had spiritual power. Many also believed that by wearing parts of an animal a person could gain some of that animal's power and strength. In this way, the wearing of animal skins became more than just putting on a form of comfortable and durable clothing. It became a part of Native Americans' religious practice and a way to improve oneself by literally "putting on" some of the desirable qualities of the animals.
Before the arrival of great numbers of Europeans in the seventeenth century, Native Americans also used the animals and plants they found around them to make food, shelter, and clothing. One of the most plentiful resources in many areas was the bark of trees, which was stripped, dried, and shredded to make fibers. These fibers were used to weave soft, comfortable clothing. Typical shredded bark
Many tribes made bark clothing, using the trees that grew close by. In the southeastern United States, the Cherokee used mulberry bark to make soft shirts. The Pomo living along the West Coast used shredded redwood bark to make wraparound skirts, while the Paiute and Washoe of the deserts further east shredded the plentiful bark of the sagebrush. Tribes of the rainy Northwest coast of North America, such as the Tlingit and the Suquamish, wove rain-hats and raincoats from the bark of the cedar tree.
Most clothing was made by Indian women, who also prepared the fibers for weaving. Bark was stripped from small trees and then dried in the sun before being pounded into a flexible mass and shredded into thin, strong fibers. These fibers were woven into fabric and made into clothing that was both comfortable and protective. Native Americans loved to bring beauty into their lives by decorating even everyday items, so sometimes bark clothing was decorated with fringe, painted pictures, porcupine quills, or animal teeth and claws. Bark clothing was difficult to clean, but bark was an abundant resource, so most bark clothing was simply discarded when it became too dirty to wear.
Although many tribes used handmade methods of weaving, natives of the American Southwest were the first group to develop a loom, or weaving device, for weaving cloth. In 1200 C.E. , well before the arrival of the first Europeans, Indians in the Southwest grew cotton and wove it into cloth. They also wove yucca, wool, feathers, and even human hair into cloth. Their breechclouts, leggings, and skirts were often made of woven fibers.
As Native Americans had continued contact with Europeans and white settlers, their ability to continue making clothing according to their traditional ways was destroyed. Native Americans had eagerly incorporated new items, such as glass beads and silver ornaments, into their wardrobes when they first started trading with whites. But continued contact with whites made it impossible for Native Americans to maintain their traditional ways of clothing themselves. Pushed off their homelands and onto reservations, government land set aside for them to live, in the late 1800s, Native Americans lost the ability to hunt for or gather the necessary materials for their clothes. Their new circumstances forced them to buy clothing from whites, which drastically changed the way Native Americans dressed.
Anawalt, Patricia R., and H. B. Nicholson. Indian Clothing Before Cortes. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Hofsinde, Robert. Indian Costumes. New York: William Morrow, 1968.
Martin, Calvin. Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978.
Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1994.