TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma – Fashion is always changing and evolving, as it has for centuries among Indigenous people whose contact with European settlers drastically altered not only their way of life, but their clothing as well.
Prior to the trade era, and even after Europeans made contact with Cherokees, it was common for men to wear buckskin leggings that came up past the knee. They’d also don breechcloths that wrapped around the groin, and moccasins or boots made out of deerskin. Women wore the wraparound skirts, also typically made of deerskin. And neither men or women typically wore shirts before settlers arrived.
But with Cherokees among some of the first Native tribes to interact with colonizers, it wasn’t long after they began interacting that Cherokees adopted some European styles of clothing, according to Ernestine Berry, executive director of the United Keetoowah Band John Hair Cultural Center & Museum.
“The Cherokees had pretty early contact with Europeans in the East,” she said. “A lot of our traditions and a lot of things we had prior to that – of course, there was no photography back then or TVs, nothing to record it. About the only thing there was was after [George] Catlin started painting. He painted a lot of Indians and he painted some of the Cherokees, but not many. That was after they had adopted a lot of the European ways – weaving and making their clothing from cloth.”
The affect colonization in North America had on Native culture is evidenced by old paintings. Berry pointed to paintings of Cherokee Principal Chief John Jolly, in which he was captured with more contemporary, European-style clothing; and a painting of Osage Chief Clermont, in which he dressed in a leather loincloth with lots of feathers and no shirt.
“That’s the contrast there between the Cherokees, who had early on contact, and Osages, who were later,” she said.
When Moravian missionaries appeared on Cherokee land, they brought their spinning wheels with them, and taught the women and girls how to spin. So woven clothing started to become more popular, as Cherokees would trade furs and other items for cloth and various European goods.
“Not everybody learned to spin, but that was the beginning of it,” said Berry.
Over time, Cherokees began to wear more woven clothing. Many wealthier Cherokees had their lives, culture and clothing documented, said Berry, so while some Natives transitioned to European ways, others kept with more traditional attire.
Eventually, the hunting coat became a popular jacket among Cherokees. Berry said Sequoyah wore a hunter’s jacket with long sleeves, big cuffs, lapels, and fringe all the way around the collar. He was also known for wearing a turban.
“And then they’d have a belt that they’d tie around the waist,” said Berry.
As time has passed, Cherokees have created new traditions. The tear dress and ribbon shirt have become popular for ceremonial gatherings – and not just among Cherokees. Berry said the UKB has since transitioned away from the ribbon dresses or shirts.
“As far as the Keetoowahs are concerned, for our Miss Keetoowah Pageant, we have gone back to more of a traditional dress rather than the ribbon dresses,” she said, explaining Cherokee women typically wore plain cloth dresses in the 1800s. “Ribbon dresses (also known as tear dresses) are still pretty common. When you see it, you know that’s a Native dress. But we haven’t been doing that for a number of years. We didn’t want to be identified with that group.”
Natives have long been misrepresented in the media, oftentimes being portrayed in stereotypical regalia not true to a particular tribe’s culture. One item that has continuously captured and distorted public perception of Natives is the headdress. Berry said that while Cherokees did have headdresses, they weren’t as elaborate as those worn by western Indians or headdresses seen in movies.
“A lot of the men would just shave their heads and they would have a little tuft of hair at the top, and they would wear some feathers. That was a form of a headdress,” she said.
What people often see in media is the large war bonnet – the feathered headgear worn by leaders of the American Plains Indians. Berry said the idea that every Native wore such regalia is wrong, and that it lumps all Indigenous tribes together. She said the museum actually has an old war bonnet used to teach people that it’s not traditional UKB attire.
“A lot of our people don’t know that’s wrong, especially our kids,” she said. “They do drawings and they draw this big western war bonnet like they see on TV. Once you see it in TV and movies, you don’t even think that that’s not us. We don’t do that; we never did do that. That’s western. Let’s let them have that.”
Check it out
The UKB John Hair Cultural Center and Museum is open Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visitors are asked to call ahead prior to arriving at the museum, which is located at 18627 Keetoowah Cir. in Tahlequah. The phone number is 918-772-4389.