Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Adornments of North American Natives



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The motive of personal adornment, aside from the desire to appear attractive, seems to have been to mark individual, tribal, or ceremonial distinction. The use of paint on the face, hair, and body, both in colour and design, generally had reference to individual or clan beliefs, or it indicated relationship or personal bereavement, or was an act of courtesy. It was always employed in ceremonies, religious and secular, and was an accompaniment of gala dress donned to honour a guest or to celebrate an occasion. The face of the dead was frequently painted in accordance with tribal or religious symbolism. The practice of painting was widespread and was observed by both sexes. Paint was also put on the faces of adults and children as a protection against wind and sun. Plucking the hair from the face and body was generally practiced. Deformation, as head flattening, and tattooing, according to some writers, were personal embellishments. Fats were used to beautify the hair and to ceremonially anoint the face and body. Sweet grass and seeds, as those of the columbine, served as perfume.


Ear ornaments were a mark of family thrift, wealth, or distinction, and indicated honour shown to the wearer by his kindred. Ceremonies, occasionally religious in character, some of which seem to relate to sacrificial rites, usually attended the boring of the ear. Each perforation cost the parent the child or the kindred of the adult gifts of a standard value, and sometimes these perforations extended round the entire rim of the ear. The pendants were of haliotis or other valued shell, or were made of metal or bone, or were long woven bands of dentalium which reached nearly to the waist.


Labrets were used by the Eskimo [now called Inuit], the N. Pacific coast tribes, and some of the Gulf coast Indiana . Among some the labret was worn only by men, in some by women, and where worn by both sexes it was of two different styles. At puberty an incision was made in the lip or at the corner of the mouth, and a slender pin was inserted, which was replaced by larger ones until the opening could admit a stud of the size desired. The Eskimo, when travelling, removed his labret to prevent freezing of the lip, but inserted it when entering a village. Among some of the northern and southern tribes the septum of the nose was pierced, and feathers, bark, or rings were inserted.


Elaborate ornamentation of garments was reserved for the gala dress. The Eskimo combined bits of fur of different colours and quality in a pleasing pattern for trimming their garments, and fishskin dyed in brilliant colours and the plumage of birds were also used for the same purpose. Outer garments were made of the breasts of sea birds skillfully joined together. Among the inland tribes the earlier designs for porcupine and feather quillwork were reproduced later in beads of European manufacture. Feathers were widely used to decorate the robes and garments of warriors and other distinguished persons, and were woven into mantles by the cliff-dwellers and by tribes formerly living near the Gulf of Mexico . Among the Plains Indians the milk teeth of the elk were the most costly of adornments. They were fastened in rows on a woman's tunic, giving the garment a value of several hundred dollars.


Headbands, armlets, bracelets, belts, necklaces, and garters, of metal, seeds, embroidered buckskin, peculiar pelts, or woven fibre, had their practical use, but were made decorative, and often were symbolic. Archeological testimony shows that sea-shell beads, worn as necklaces or woven into belts, were widely used, and they probably found their way into the interior through barter or as ceremonial or friendly gifts. Wampum belts figured largely in the official transactions between the early settlers and the eastern tribes. Discs cut from the conch shell were worn as ornaments and were also offered in certain religious rites; they ranked among the northern tribes as did the turquoise among the people of the S. W. With the Plains Indians a necklace of bear's claws marked the man of distinction. The head-dress varied in different parts of the country and was generally significant of a man's kinship, ceremonial office, rank, or totemic dependence, as was also the ornamentation upon his weapons and his shield.


In the S. W. blankets bordered with a design woven in colours were used on ceremonial occasions, and with the broad belts, white robes, and fringed sashes worn at marriage are interesting specimens of weaving and colour treatment. The brilliant Navaho blankets with their cosmic symbols are well known. The most remarkable example of the native weaver's skill is the ceremonial blanket and apron of the Chilkat tribe of Alaska ; it is made of the wool of the mountain goat, dyed black, yellow, and green with native dyes over a warp of cedar bark strings. A design of elaborate totemic forms covered the entire space within the border lines, and the ends and lower edge were heavily fringed. According to Boas these garments probably originated among the Tsimshian. In the buffalo country women seldom ornamented their own robes, but embroidered those worn by men. Sometimes a man painted his robe in accordance with a dream, or pictured upon it a yearly record of his own deeds or of the prominent events of the tribe. Women wore the buffalo robe differently from the men, who gathered it about the person in a way that emphasized their action or the expression of emotion.


It was common for a tribe to have its peculiar cut and decoration of the moccasin, so that a man's tribe was proclaimed by his foot gear. The war shirt was frequently painted to represent the wearer's prayer, having the design on the back for protection and one on the breast for victory. The shirt was occasionally decorated with a fringe of human hair, locks being generally contributed by female relatives; it rarely displayed war trophies. The most imposing article of the warrior's regalia was the bonnet with its crown of golden-eagle feathers. Before the introduction of the horse the flap at the back rarely extended below the waist, but when the warriors got to be mounted "the spine," with its ruff of feathers, was so lengthened as to equal or exceed the height of the man. Song and ceremony accompanied the making of a war bonnet by warriors of the tribe, and a war honour was recounted upon each feather before it was placed in position. A bonnet could not be made without the consent of warriors, and it stood as a record of tribal valour as well as a distinction granted to a man by his fellow tribesmen.


The gala and ceremonial dress of the Pueblo tribes of the S. W., of those formerly dwelling on the plains, and of those of the Pacific coast, was replete with ornamentation which, either in design or material, suggested rites or past experiences and thus kept alive beliefs and historic memories among the people. Such were the woman's dress of the Yurok of California; the fringe of the skirt was wrapped with the same vegetal materials as she used in her basketry, and her apron was an elaborate network of the same on which depended strands of shells with pendants cut from the abalone. In the same connection may be mentioned the manner of dressing the hair of a Hopi maiden; the whorl on each side of her head symbolizes the flower of the squash, a sacred emblem of the tribe. The horses of warriors were often painted to indicate the dreams or the war experiences of their riders. Accoutrements were sometimes elaborately ornamented.

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Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 8-9.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College