Southern Plains Style Canvas Ghost Dance Dress

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By the 1870’s the plains Indians found themselves in the predicament of being overwhelmed by a technologically and numerically superior tribe, the white man. Some tribes resisted to the end. Others, like the Crows and Pawnees, threw in their lot with the whites, and some tribes literally disintegrated over the issue of whether to oppose or accept the advance of Euro America.

Although the stories of starvation in early reservation days may be exaggerated, the period was definitely characterized by active government efforts to wipe out the Indians’ existing political, religious, and education systems. Their military and economic systems had already been destroyed.

The arrests of religious practitioners, the denigration of traditional values, and the arrogance of agency personnel toward chiefs and councilors all were demoralizing. In addition, the forced dependence upon the bureaucrats for sustenance and the resulting boredom of doing nothing but waiting for rations, bred powerful resentments in the hearts of the Indians. Since the whites had already demonstrated their might, the only apparent way to change the stultifying situation seemed to be through divine intervention.

One response to these conditions was the Ghost Dance religion. Its practitioners preached nonviolence and grafted elements of nostalgia for the past onto the new Christian teaching about the Messiah’s second coming. Ghost Dance regalia on the Southern Plains showed a real fluorescence of artistry. On the Northern Plains, Ghost Dance shirts and dresses were made of muslin and flour sacks. The Sioux even believed their shirts were bullet-proof. That misguided notion helped lead to the horrors of Wounded Knee.

This spectacular canvas dress is made in Southern Plains style. While many dresses have painted stars in their design, as does this one, the yoke in this garment is made from the field of an actual flag. Stripes and traditional bird designs representing the eagle are painted on the body of the dress. It measures 57 inches from hem to yoke. While the Sioux were finished with the Ghost Dance by early 1891, it continued in Oklahoma for a few more years. When the Messiah failed to appear, most of the shirts and dresses were sold to collectors.

Illustrated in Spirits in the Art, by James A. Hanson, pg-62

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