Traditional Native American Culture and Fashion

What better time than Native American Heritage Month to discover the cultural traditions and dress that belong to one of the most well- established cultures in modern society.

Natalie Finnigan
29th November 2020

The month of November is Native American Heritage Month, which provides ample reason to bring attention to the culture, traditions and heritage belonging to one of the oldest and most established cultures standing in contemporary society. Also referred to as American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month, it celebrates a wealth of various customs spanning over 500 government-recognised tribes in the United States, along with certain practices that surpass tribal boundaries and hold significance to multiple clans. Different tribes had different clothing depending on what materials were available and the environment they needed to survive in: those living in the Great Plains, such as the Sioux, Cheyenne and Chippewa, had distinct clothing to Arctic and Sub-Arctic tribes, including the Inuit, Eyak and Yup’ik. Special tribal dress was known as regalia, worn for important ceremonies and rituals and featured beadwork, pendants and feathers.


Powwows were and continue to be a gathering across tribes to socialise, dance and commemorate their cultures. This could be specific to one tribe or inter-tribal and non-Native spectators are generally welcomed at these events. Following the U.S. government settling and claiming vast quantities of Native soil, in 1923 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs passed legislation that restricted when Native people could hold powwows and traditional dances. Their culture and traditions were considered a substantial threat to 'civilised society' that could potentially damage the dominance of Christianity. Despite this, Native tribes met in secret to practice their cultural traditions, keeping their ancient customs alive and defying the government's attempt to silence their way of life.

Powwows nearly always involve dancing and can last up to several days; some dances are competitive and there are 32 dance categories at the Gathering of Nations, one of the largest powwows in the U.S. Clothing worn at powwows today must be called 'regalia' rather than a 'costume' which is considered reductive to this historically significant, celebrated tradition. Regalia differs based on the dance itself; for a Fancy Dance, men wear vivid outfits with dramatic coloured feathers, mirroring the flamboyant whirls, spins and leaps involved, while Grass Dance regalia features long fringed edges resembling grass in the wind. When dancing individually, men and women are separated, although they can also dance in groups and couples. Both perform in the Traditional, wearing simpler outfits as this specific dance recalls the origins of the powwow when it was initially performed generations ago amongst warrior tribes like the Omaha and Ponca. Women can also perform a healing dance, in which they wear a jingling dress; the skirt is adorned with rows of metal, like tin cones 'made from rolled snuff can lids', that make noise when the dance is performed. These dresses range in every shade of every colour, design and decoration; contemporary dresses feature plumes and feathered fans. However, the movements are still executed to replicate the sound of falling rain through the tin cones bouncing off each other, which is thought to bring healing and cure the sick.

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Symbols of honour

War bonnets were traditionally worn by chiefs, war leaders and celebrated warriors across the Great Plains to showcase their brave deeds, usually achieved in war. They would first collect separate feathers, and once they had enough, these would be made into a headdress. Each separate feather individually represented a single brave action the warrior had done, making it a valued piece of fashion that signified the wearer was highly respected in the tribe. Feathers on bonnets were decorated with different colours, designs and styles to represent why the bonnet was awarded to the wearer, bestowed by the elders of the tribe for honourable actions. They also had distinct meanings: eagle feathers stood for noble strength and bravery; crow feathers were used to indicate crafty problem-solving; those from falcons signified speed; and raven feathers were for knowledge.

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War shirts were tunics worn for significant ceremonies and rituals and would be customised for the wearer with decoration including beadwork, paintings, bird feathers and fringes. They were a special privilege only gifted by the council to those who had demonstrated great bravery in battle, similar to the privilege of receiving a war bonnet as recognition of courage. Locks of hair from the scalps of enemies would be attached as a protective charm, or perhaps sewn as a talisman on the shirt made by their family. Paintings would depict iconic moments from the wearers' life and actions, along with images of the natural world and religious values; the shirt was believed to hold spiritual power which would be absorbed by whoever wore it, making it an important sacred item.


In some tribes, regalia was restricted from common people and was exclusively worn by priests, often purified by cleansing with herbs to ensure the regalia was pure and sacred. Masks were worn for ceremonies, war rituals and spiritual rites. The spirit of the mask was thought to possess the person wearing it. They would represent animals, a specific person or a spirit and would be embellished with feathers, paint or even leaves. The chief would wear an eagle mask, viewed as the most powerful animal in Native culture. Different colours represented different emotions: red stood for happiness and faith; green for curing sickness, peace and nature; and purple symbolised magic and the mysterious unknown. Tribes like the Mohawk, Seneca and Oneida crafted wooden face masks to symbolise different spirits: invoking certain spirits would protect the community from disease, bad weather and enemies.

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Native American culture continues to thrive despite the U.S. government passing legislation to restrict their traditions, beliefs and spirituality. By performing their customs such as dance, spiritual rites and fashion they keep their culture alive, preserving their ancient practices for future generations and to ensure their history will never be forgotten or erased.

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