What Did the Native Americans Wear? The Religious and Cultural Significance

The Native American Tribes

Dacota Tribal Dress

Native Americans of the Americas are the indigenous people who mainly belonged to the southern and northern part of the country. Popularly known as Red Indians and First Nations, they are composed of more than 500 groups having unique traditions, life styles and clothing. Every group will dress up according to its belief system and culture. Lakota, Tlingit, Iroquois, DIne and Muscogee were considered the five most important Native American tribes. Some tribes used to worship sun, so they would wear bright clothes to pay respect to the sun. On the other hand, some tribes used to worship mountains, so they would wear clothes resembling the color of the mountains. Beads, loincloths, headdresses, pendants and even arms were part of the Native American dresses. Every tribe had a reason to wear clothes of their choice.

The Meanings Attached to Clothing

The Native Americans belonging to different tribes had different meanings attached to their clothing. The following is a list of clothing

Native American Mask

items of different tribes with an explanation related to its meaning and significance in the Native American culture.

  • Beads and pendants were worn not only to look good but they also served other purposes. For the exchange of goods and grains, tribal people would make use of these beads and other expensive stones. Every tribe would have a different color of beads associated with them and it also served as an identity mark for the individuals. Effectively, beads and pendants used to serve the purpose of modern day flags in the tribal world. The beads and pendants made of stones were also used in traditional ceremonies like marriages and community gathering. The tribes used to worship the five basic elements of life and their stones and shells reflected earth and water elements. So wearing pendants and beads also had religious significance.
  • Prior to the arrival of Europeans in America, many tribes used to wear deerskin and breechcloths. The arrival of the Europeans introduced these tribes to the woolen and cotton clothing. A gradual change in the lifestyle started to appear as people started wearing modern clothes. In the early 1700s, the Muscogee tribe even started trading with the Europeans for these clothes. The Iroquois people were the first ones to adopt European clothing into their culture.
  • The Tlingit tribes would wear clothes printed with animal designs on it. Animals significant to the town, clan or the tribe would be printed on the clothes and tribal people would wear these clothes on special occasions like marriages, celebrating community festivals, etc.
  • Regallia was a special dress of Native Americans worn on special occasions. It included beads, pendants, headbands, feather work bracelets and wampum belts.
  • Masks and war bonnets also remained an important part of Native American clothing. Feather war bonnets, porcupine brooches, basket hats and feather bands were integral part of tribal traditional dresses. The head of the family, clan or tribe were often seen wearing these hats and feather bands. In some tribes, the eagle feathers were restricted only for warriors and leaders. Other people would not wear the eagle feathers as their headbands.

The Religious Significance of Native American Clothing

Native Americans were superstitious by nature and they believed that it was their duty to please their gods. Their clothing had a lot to do with their religion as well. In some tribes, certain dresses like regalia were restricted only for the priests, and for a common man, even touching it was forbidden. Some tribes used to pacify and purify their regalia by washing it with herbs so that the dress remains sacred and the gods stayed happy. Similarly, masks were used for performing different religious rituals and cultural dances. Even today, these Native American masks are used in dances and dramas. Some tribes would pray to their gods only when they are wearing these masks. It was believed that the gods can be pleased if all the people hide their faces and beg them to forgive them for their sins.

The traditional jewels were also used for healing and as therapies of ailments. Shells, which used to be a part of their dresses, were used for healing and curing ceremonies. Jewelry was worn or exchanged by them to indicate an individual's passage through an important physical or social change. Rites of Passage was the name given to these transformations and even in death ceremonies, these clothing traditions have to be followed to respect the departed soul.

The resources below will provide additional information. It's exciting to discover the rich cultural significance of the clothing and accessories worn by the Native Americans.