VISUAL ARTS | At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a Native American shirt with a story to tell

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A very rare Native American shirt, dating back probably to the mid-1700s, was recently acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). As an object it carries a tremendous amount of history, and many mysteries.

MIA curator Joe Horse Capture said that while there is no definitive evidence, he believes the shirt may have been made by a Dakota woman within the boundaries of today’s Minnesota. Clues come from the object itself. The patterns are similar to other hide paintings that surfaced in Illinois that are believed to originate from the Great Lakes region. The shirt also contains elements from the Plains region to the west. “On this shirt you see a combination of two different styles,” Horse Capture said. “You see a Great Lakes style and you see a Plains style…As we look at Native American art in the 19th and 18th century, there are certain places where design elements come together.” Because the shirt contains design elements from the Great Lakes and Plains regions, Horse Capture believes it may have been made by an individual from the Dakota tribe.

The shirt also appears to have at least some Western tailoring influence. The sides are less open and the shirt tabs are not as low as other Plains Indian shirts found 50-60 years later, though the painted patterns and fringe are of Native American aspect. The tricky part, Horse Capture explains, is that no other similar objects exist to compare it with. It is the only shirt of its kind.

The shirt was collected by French traders in the area that was New France in the 18th century, according to Horse Capture, and then acquired in the Great Lakes region along with other objects and sent to France. “It was probably in the cabinet of curiosities,” he said. “Some royalty-owned, some like a treasure from the foreign land.”

From there, little is known about what happened to the shirt.  “We lost where it was for a time period,” said Horse Capture, “particularly during the French Revolution.” Then, it resurfaced within a collection in Europe about 15 years ago or so, eventually working its way back to the United States where the MIA bought it an auction at Christie’s.

The patterns on the hide indicate abstracted images of a Thunderbird, an important creature in traditional Native American spirituality. “The Thunderbird controls the power from above,” Horse Capture said. “The lightning shoots out of its eyes and wings and talons,” he said. The lightning imagery can be seen in the long radiating patterns that are painted onto the leather on the shoulder and the sleeves.

The fact that the shirt is now back in the area that it was most likely created, means that individuals from the Native American community have an opportunity to see the object. Horse Capture has been working hard to reach out to the local and regional Native community, facilitating tours and educating organizations and Native American schools. “We want the museum to reflect our community,” he said. Record numbers of Native Americans came to see the Thaw Collection last fall, he said, including 45 schools with high Native American population (roughly translating to about 1475 students).

See Marianne Combs’s piece about the new acquisition in MPR’s State of the Arts.