quick to accept progressive clothing
by Lucas Graywolf
The Choctaw people are
very proud of their status as "civilized" Indians. We
have been a pragmatic people, quick to accept whatever was good
from the people who entered our lives. There is a saying that if
the European settlers had brought aluminum foil with them the
Choctaws would have been cooking with it while the other tribes
were still regarding it with suspicion. But too often, in the rush
for progress, we lose a sense of our history, our roots. It
becomes hard for us to remember who and what we were before the
white man came with his fine clothes, fancy homes and furniture.
Perhaps this is nowhere more noticeable that at our annual tribal
gathering. We are hosts to people from many other tribes. They
wear modern clothing throughout the day, but when they dance for
us they wear the clothing worn by their ancestors many winters
before the civilizing influences took hold of their lives. We're
not often seen wearing such garments even though it is a part of
What did the Choctaw of
the 1700s or early 1800s wear: to learn that we have to turn to
the documents and paintings of the Europeans who first came into
contact with our people.
We know from one of our
verbal histories (Anthropologists and historians mockingly call
them "myths and legends") that our people first lived a
great distance to the West and that under the leadership of
Chahtah and Chicsa we came to the East, following the direction a
sacred pole or cane leaned each day until it finally remained
upright in the region we now know as Mississippi. In his book Chahta
Hapia Hoke, author Charles Worsham quotes a tribal story that
says, ". . . our people lived in the northwest. In time their
population became so large that it was difficult to exist
there." It may be shoka anompa but it is a story told
too often to doubt. We leave it to the Holytopa Hattak to
discuss the wisdom of the Nanih Waiya stories of creation.
The Choctaw people once lived with the plains or mountain tribes
and many of our old customs and the clothing we wore were almost
indistinguishable from theirs.
When Philadelphia artist
George Catlin first encountered the Choctaws, he found them a
happy and cheerful people, industrious and honest. In two of his
most famous paintings of our tribe (pre-game and Ishtaboli
contest) he shows warriors on the sidelines dressed in the
buckskin leggings similar to those worn by the plains tribes.
Instead of a loin cloth which hung across the belt in front and
back, the Choctaws seemed to be wearing ones that simply tucked
into the top of the belt, much like bulky "fruit of the
looms" as it were. At least one seemed to have long hair
hanging from his belt in different places. Others wore clothes
that had special markings or decorations. Their hair was uniformly
black and long, not braided in pig-tails in the plains fashion but
simply hanging loose. Yet in another painting depicting an
individual Ishtaboli player, Catlin shows the man with
comparatively short hair. Some men seem to be wearing colored head
bands while all of the men are depicted with one or more feathers
in their hair. A great number of the men are shown with spears or
lances and decorated rawhide shields.
Women in Catlin's
pictures are shown wearing mid-calf length buckskin dresses, with
sculpted bottoms. These dresses, known as "two-hide"
dresses, are very similar to those worn by the Blackfoot, Sioux,
and Missouri Indians although the former might be longer than
those painted by Catlin. The bottoms, arms and yokes are all
fringed and some seem to be decorated with strands of material,
beads or hair. A few of these are painted with decorations,
pictures or stripes. At least one has a turtle painted on the
back. Like the men, the women all are wearing their hair unplaited
and there seems to be no ornamentation. A curious note must be
made of the women painted by the artist at the far side of the
ball field. There he seems to depict dresses in various colors
including blue, yellow and pink or red. While the details are not
clear, it is possible he saw some women in what came to be known
as "trade-cloth" dresses, made from wool stroud cloth.
This material was made similar to hide dresses but had a gusset to
make the dress a proper width. They most often were made of red or
Foot wear is more
confusing in these paintings. Most men are pictured without any
foot coverings at all. The women, on the other hand, are all
pictured in moccasins. These appear to be covered with short
leggings, or are above the calf mocs and the tops may have fallen
to cause a wrinkled look.
At each end of the ball
fields, Catlin shows drummers who appear to be cheerleaders of
some sort. They are carrying small hand drums roughly 12 inches in
diameter and decorated with small designs. Their drum sticks are
simply long pieces of wood that have been curled by some means on
the end into little hoops which are then pounded against the skins
of the drum.
In a future feature we
will see how trade cloth and association with the Seminoles and
Cherokees began having an enormous effect on our
"primitive" clothing styles.
styles of the Primitive Choctaw
by Lucas Graywolf
By the year 1833, the
Choctaw Indians of Mississippi were already on their way to
adopting the styles of the European settler who had begun arriving
in their villages in great numbers. Tradecloth, a bulky,
loose-knit material dyed in bright colors, was brought into the
Choctaw villages by both the French and British, as were the
pipe-tomahawks that were to become a symbol of the tribe.
Like the women of other
tribes, Choctaw women took long lengths of the material, full bolt
width, and simply folded it in half, cutting a hole for the head
to pass through. In order to assure fullness in the dress, full
length gussets were sewn into each side. The dress was then
ornamented according to the desires of the women, but usually
following some traditional customs. These might include sea
shells, fringe, feathers or even beads. As European glass beads
became more available, the Choctaw women stopped making them from
berries, seeds and rocks.
It was during this same
time period that many of the Choctaws, including the men, began to
adopt some of the clothing styles of the Cherokee and Seminoles
who came to trade in Choctaw villages.
In 1847, French artist
Alfred Boisseau painted a picture titled, "Choctaw Indians
Walking by the Bayou in Louisiana." In that picture the
Choctaw man is shown wearing only a very long shirt, made of
brightly colored print material, a blanket, leg wrappings and
moccasins. This print shirt (slipping off one shoulder) is common
to those worn by the Seminoles of Florida during the same time
period. The two women are only depicted with large blankets
wrapped around their bodies and a small child seems to be wearing
an oversized plain shirt with the sleeves rolled up and covered
with a poncho made of blanket material.
In 1834, Artist George
Catlin painted two portraits that are well known to anyone who
reads any material on Choctaw History. They depict two of our
greatest leaders, Chief Moshulatubbee and Chief Peter Pitchlynn.
This was to be the last time any of our leaders was to be pictured
in anything resembling "Indian" clothing. In both
paintings these men are wearing different versions of French
hunting coats. Pitchlynn's is certainly in the more classical
frontier version of this coat worn by French explorers of the
period, although his is made of cloth rather than the hide coats
sometimes worn by the French in America. Both men are wearing
feathers in their hair, necklaces, and pull-over trade cloth
shirts with exceptionally wide collars. While Pitchlynn is
portrayed empty-handed, Moshulatubbee is seen with a medicine or
"peace" pipe and a beautiful feather fan.
It is worthy of note that
Moshulatubbee wears a simple waist tie, much like a cummerbund but
Pitchlynn is wearing an embroidered stole across one shoulder and
tied on the side, much like deacons of some churches. It was a
large version of the chest ties or ornamentations worn by Choctaw
men and called Baldrics. These were often narrow strips of colored
material (usually red) and decorated with flowered embroidery or
bead work. They were worn crossed at the chest and tied on each
By 1850, Choctaw men and
women had fully adopted the European style of clothing. Several
authors have described meeting Pitchlynn at meetings or social
events. A most gracious and charming man, finely dressed and well
mannered. He lived in European style housing, often hosting large
social gatherings. One must assume he wore the clothing of
commerce and white mans politics. Gideon Linecum, a noted
businessman who maintained close ties with the Choctaw people,
reported keeping regular company with Moshulatubbee, whom he
described in like manner.
It was the adoption of
the frontier style "grannie" dress that was to become
the "traditional" Choctaw women's garb. Although we have
continued to adopt each new clothing style that shows up our women
have clung to the red cloth dress in frontier style as the native
Choctaw dress. With its sometimes lace fringed white yoke and the
traditional crown, and topped with our ladies "crown" it
is prominent at any of our tribal activities.
As an aside, in my last
article I described two dancers depicted in the Ishtaboli game
standing by the goal posts and beating drums. I referred to them
as some sort of "cheerleaders." After that article
appeared in The Bishinik, I received two telephone calls
from men who described themselves as Choctaw Apolumas (spirit or
"medicine" men). They both informed me that the men with
the drums in the pictures were Apolumas calling spirits to help
their team win the game. I do not have a listed telephone number
and I have never met either of these men before. My address did
not appear in the story, nor was there anything to indicate that I
lived in Texas. It was not until after I hung up from the last
call that I thought to ask how they found me. Perhaps I don't want
Choctaws gave up
primitive dress in 1800's
The Choctaws were all
reported by federal officials as wearing "citizen's
dress" from the time of the Civil War. Peter Hudson, whose
life spanned this particular period, recalled that he knew only
one Choctaw who wore braided hair and only once did he see an
Indian who wore such primitive dress as buckskin leggings. A
visitor to Indian Territory in the 1870's observed that the women
of the Five Civilized Tribes were "not devoid of a certain
wild beauty," but this was concealed successfully by
"poke bonnets," ankle-length dresses or robes, and
shawls decorously draped about the shoulders." Citizens in
the upper economic brackets were so well dressed that they would
have gone unnoticed anywhere in the United States. Any Choctaw man
on dress parade was likely to wear a blue serge suit and a black
hat of moderately wide brim. Coleman Cole, principal chief in the
mid-1870's was the last of the leaders among the Choctaws who
dressed in such a way that he would have attracted attention
outside the Nation. He wore his hair down to his shoulders and
dressed carelessly. When he found it necessary to travel, he rode
a rawhide saddle astride a "pestle tail Indian pony," a
silk hat on his head, and a hunting coat of many colors over his
The full blood Choctaws
made many of their own clothes; consequently, they did not possess
extensive wardrobes. The children often had no shoes at all or
were lucky to get one pair a year. If there was a man in the
community who made moccasins from tanned deer hides, that type of
foot wear could be obtained for everyday wear by barter. One
Indian woman tells of going barefoot in order to save her shoes
for special occasions such as church gatherings. On ordinary days,
her shoes hung on the wall at home.
Where sheep were raised,
the mother sometimes spun the wool to make heavy socks, stockings,
and mittens for the family. A little cotton was often raised and
clothing produced for the family through the whole process of home
or "cottage" manufacture. Seed was picked from the
cotton lint by hand or by pulling the bolls through pegs attached
to a board. The fiber was then carded and spun into thread or was
quilted between layers of cloth for robes and quilts. In some
families, cloth was woven from the thread and colored with
homemade dyes derived from barks, herbs, or berries. Red Oak
produced a black dye, as did dried walnut hulls; yellow dye was
made from bois d'arc bark, red from pokeberries, reddish brown
from green walnut hulls, and other colors were produced by
combining these various ingredients.
The Choctaw clothes in
early days in Mississippi were whatever was available within their
region. The early clothes consisted of a blouse and short skirt
made of animal hide for the woman. Deer brains were used in
tanning the hides. The men wore breechcloths and moccasins. When
traveling, they wore pants and a shirt. In the winter, they wore
outer garments of animal hide and furs with the lower ends of
leggings tucked into the moccasin. The Choctaw men wore moccasins
when traveling, but often went barefoot at home.
Later, the women
invariably wore a blouse and skirt made of cotton material. In the
winter, the body was protected by a shawl. They wore moccasins
similar to those worn by men, but usually went barefoot at home.
For ornaments, they wore wooden beads. Both men and women wore
their hair long and plaited or flowing loosely.
The clothes worn after
the turn of their 19th century was similar to those worn by the
white settlers. The dress style changed among the women of the
white settlers, but the Choctaw women continued to wear the
loosely fitted dress with the hemline just above the ankle. She
wore an apron and kerchief on her head and went barefoot at home.
During the early 1900's,
the women began to adopt the dress style of that era and
ready-made dresses were available for purchase. Today the Choctaw
women keep abreast of current fashion and no longer are they
"set apart by the clothes they wear .
The clothes for
ceremonial activities were colorful and carefully sewn by hand.
The origin and date of the adoption of this distinctive dress is
not certain, but it is similar to the traditional peasant dress in
Brittany's Province of France during the early 1800's. The
handmade dress has a full sleeve and flowing skirt with ruffles
requiring up to six yards of colorful cotton material. The Choctaw
dress of today is usually of solid color of green, red, blue,
purple, or other bright color with contrasting color trim. The
decorative trim symbolizes the mountains and valleys with a path
or trail beside them.
The circle and cross
symbolizes the sun and the stars. The diamond shaped trim is said
to symbolize respect for nature, such as respect for the
diamond-backed rattlesnake. For instance, if you go into the woods
and are bitten by a snake, you have invaded his territory;
therefore, you should respect his home and be watchful.
A decorative white apron
with contrasting trim and ruffles is an integral part of the
Choctaw woman's dress. It is decorative as well as functional. The
marital status of the woman determines the opening of the dress.
The unmarried woman's dress is opened in the back, while the
married woman's dress is opened at the front for accessibility to
nourishment for an infant.
Ornaments worn with the
dress for special occasions include a beaded decorative comb on
the crown of the head. Other beaded decorations include earrings,
medallion, collar necklace in a diamond lace design, and shoulder
necklace. Multi-color ribbons are normally worn at the back as
decorations while performing the Choctaw social dance. A white
handkerchief is worn at the neckline and a pair of moccasins
completes the ensemble.
dresses are usually worn only for special occasions today. They
are usually a solid color with contrasting trim or a print with a
contrasting solid trim.
Directions for a Choctaw
Cotton/Polyester blend; Notions: 22" zipper, threads yardage:
Average adult, 5 yard s; larger size, 6 yards; apron and
decorative trim 1 and 3/4 yards, all of 44" materials. Seam
allowance 1/4" to 3/8".
Use scissors for yoke,
midriff and sleeve to make sure the dress fits.
1. Cut yoke, front and
back - cut two of each.
2. Cut lower bodice or
midriff, front and back. Cut 2, same size.
3. Sleeve - length to
Tear: two cuffs, large
enough to slip over hand; two waistbands, to go around your waist
loosely plus 2;
SKIRT, two panels with
length desired from midcalf to floor;
STRIPS for ruffles for
hem, skirt and yoke: Tear strips allowing for slight fullness,
approximately 1 1/2 times the width of hem;Strips for two panels
of 44" material: Hem ruffles 4" x 132"; skirt
ruffles 3 3/4" x 132"; yoke ruffles 3 1/2 " x
132". Cut bias strip 2" wide for neck, length depends on
size of neckline; Strips for decorative trimmings: 3/4" for
triangle trim and 1/2 " wide for narrow strips above trim.
Cut strips with scissors. The strips are 132" long.
Yoke is lined. Waistband
is lined also. Trimmings should be of contrasting material.
Trimmings on yoke, two rows; cuffs, one row; hem ruffles, one row;
skirt, two rows. Wash dress by hand or on gentle cycle in washer.
Dry on low heat or in shaded area so it won't fade. Do not store
dress and moccasins together.
1. Sew together shoulder,
front and back of yoke. Same with lining.
2. Basting stitch on top
and bottom of midriff for both back and front. Gather and fit onto
yoke of back and front, sew through all materials. Optional, you
may slip stitch lining. Hand baste sleeve yoke and yoke lining.
3. It is now ready for
decorative trim. When the trim is completed, sew yoke ruffles on.
Sew strip of trimming on ruffles at gathering line. Complete
before going to next step.
4. Fit bias strip of
material onto neckline, sew.
5. Gather sleeve to fit
cuff, stitch. Sew trim on cuff, complete.
6. Sew sleeve onto bodice
(yoke and midriff), make gathering at top of sleeve, to fit yoke
and midriff. Fold cuff and slip stitch.
7. Fit gathered midriff
onto waistband and lining, baste, adjust if needed, sew. Set
8. Sew two panels for
skirt together. Prepare opening in front or back sufficient to sew
zipper in when dress is completed. Baste stitch top of skirt.
9. Sew together 3 strips
for bottom ruffles. Make narrow hem. Sew trimming near hem line.
Put basting stitch on top of ruffles but don't gather it until the
trimming is completed. When completed, gather ruffles and sew onto
bottom of skirt. Press.
10. Sew trimming just
above stiching line of skirt through all materials.
11. Sew 3 strips of
ruffles for skirt. Make narrow hem. Baste stitch on top. No
trimmings. Gather, and sew on skirt above trimmings. Sew strip of
trimmings on gathering line. Complete trimmings.
12. When the skin is
completed with ruffles and trimmings, gather top of skirt and fit
onto waistband, sew. Slip stitch lining.
13. At this point, the
dress should be complete except for the zipper. Sew in zipper.
14. Use the same
instructions for apron as dress.
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those
of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by
the University of Minnesota
Articles From the Choctaw newspaper
For more on Choctaw clothing, including photos and a place to
have some made, see Page 2, Choctaw