Friday, November 12, 2010

CYL: Style of the Southeast Tribes

O si yo, friends! This is the first of five Clothing You'll Love articles for Native American Heritage Month. Since 'Native American Culture' is not a homogeneous term (in the least!), I decided that it would not only be awfully silly, but also a discredit to the varied customs and art of the different tribes if I tried to work it all into one massive post. Instead, I'll be dividing the articles according to basic anthropological and geographic areas: the Southeast, the Northeastern-Woodlands, the Plains, the Southwest, and the Northwest Coast.

Today we'll be looking at the styles of dress of the Southeastern tribes during the Age of Steam: from the hills of Appalachia to the sandy beaches of the Atlantic, to the swamps of the Mississippi Delta.

Cherokee girl- undated

Historical Background
It goes without saying that historically the Age of Steam was not the best time for Native Americans- but in the middle of the period the tribes of the Southeast were hit particularly hard, so much so that documentation was difficult to find on some of what would be considered major tribal groups of the region. Whereas Plains and Northwest Coast peoples are relatively easy to find extant images in traditional clothing, the peoples of the Southeast had either assimilated (hence why the Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Muscogee (Creek), and Chickasaw were referred by settlers of the region as "The Five Civilized Tribes"), removed to lands to the West such as Oklahoma, or tragically had disappeared in vast numbers. The Southeastern tribes also felt the harsh brunt of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 enacted by Andrew Jackson (who will henceforth be referred to as the Grand Old Bastard in this blog), who had a keen grudge against the Chickasaw and Muscogee from his earlier military career.

No matter how "civilized" these five peoples were, they were all forced in large numbers to leave their homelands for territories in the West. The largest losses were sustained by the Cherokee, who had an estimated 4,000 deaths on the walk alone, not including the period of acclimatization on the reservation where many more died of disease or starvation.

One positive aspect of this period were the developments by Sequoya, a Cherokee tradesman who developed a written syllabary for his people. This led to literature and even a tribal newspaper written not only in native Cherokee, but also their own alphabet.

Sequoyah and the transliterated Cherokee alphabet. Note his iconic colorful turban.
Other large tribal groups which inhabited the region at this time included the Catawba (around the Carolinas), the Natchez (Missisippi), the Biloxi (Mississippi), and the Appalachee (coastal Alabama and the Florida panhandle).

Another aspect of Southeastern culture which was not uncommon was the practice of African-Americans (sometimes runaway slaves) intermarrying with Native people. This was most prevalent amongst the Seminoles, who were said to aggressively refuse to give up their adopted and/or married loved ones to slave-hunters.

The Art of Adaptation
One of the most noteworthy characteristics of the dress of the Southeastern tribes is how they adapted to using European cloth on their own terms. Many tribes simply reoriented their original modes of dress to be made using bright wool and calico trade cloth.

For men, base garments of the period would include a long, tunic-like shirt (comfortable for hunting or working), leggings (more akin to gaiters or trouser legs than what hipsters wear under their skirts), and that particular tribe's variant of moccasins. Both main garments could be made from buckskin or trade cloth. Often times they were accessorized with cloth sashes, bandolier-style bags (stout pouches similar to messenger bags), and cloth turbans to keep hair out of the way (turbans are also quite handy in warmer climes, such as Florida, to keep hair off of the neck and shoulders). Other garments included "blanket coats"- which were rectangular-constructed jackets made from heavy pieces of wool from blankets (author's note: these are VERY warm and cozy).

Ahojeobe, a Choctaw man in a long shirt and bandolier bag
For women of the time, the style was usually a simple dress made from buckskin or cloth and an apron. Sometimes these colorful dresses would include a yoke over the shoulders, which would often be decorated with embroidery, beadwork, or trade silver pieces.

The Seminole Style
The Seminoles were particularly renowned for their flamboyant dress and accessories even before the advent of the sewing machine, exemplified by many extant portraits of the vibrant attire of their warriors. Not only were trade cotton and calicoes more colorful, but the loose and light weave was forgiving in the Floridian heat. After the 1880s, Seminole clothing became even more ornate when women of the tribe got their hands on sewing machines- which allowed them to invent a wondrous language of patchwork that they integrated into their dress.

A lexicon of Seminole patchwork
Another iconic trait of Seminole decoration were the multiple strands of beads that women wore- sometimes amassing so many that the very weight of them would gradually push the muscles in the shoulder downward, similar to the brass rings the Karen women of Southeast Asia wear. Necklaces were added freely, both of traditional drilled-stone beads and traded glass or ceramic from the Westerners, resulting in a collar of color and pattern that was worn with pride- even while working.

Adapting Southeastern Clothing into Steampunk
The clothing of the Southeastern tribes is not only practical, but very striking- even when mixed with traditional Western or European garments.

- Turbans work magnificently in ensembles- not only do they look flash and are easy to wear, but they keep unruly hair out of your face. For a southeastern-style headwrap, use silk or calico scarves in bright colors.
-Patchwork. Nothing embodies steampunk like the adaptation of technology into everyday life- think of the designs that could have been made with more advanced looms or sewing machines.
- Leggings- southeastern men's leggings look remarkably like the gaiters seen on the uniforms of soldiers of the period- except in vivid color, decoration, and often tied off with sashes. In fact, frontier and mountain men often adopted these practical garments for trooping through the wilderness. For more information, look in the links section for an entire article about them.
- Blanket coats- they're cheap, warm, and look great mixed with other garments for an active look. Woolens in stripes or solid colors look great. Look for material at goodwill or military surplus (you can easily dye or decorate them).
- The Bandolier-style Bag and its heavy decoration are very practical for steampunks of all backgrounds and persuasions.

Catawba people- in mixed dress styles.
A group of Seminoles

Selocta (1830s)- a Muscogee chief who tried to negotiate with Grand Old Bastard on behalf of his people
Chickasaw Removal- a high fashion piece by native designer Margaret Roach Wheeler, inspired by traditional clothing of the period.
Seminole girls

Helpful Links: - A helpful article (with citations, oooooh!) and tutorial on the construction of Seminole cloth leggings. - A simple overview from our friends at nativetech of some basic attire of the region. - Interesting culture links from the official website of the Cherokee Nation. - The official website of the Seminole Nation of Florida.


  1. Thank you for posting this!!! :-)

  2. Great reading! The photos make me wish they had color photography back then... I want to see all the colors of the calico and beads :)

  3. Thank you for posting!

    Look up Cherokee and Southeastern Tribal sites, they do have some dresses and clothing from this time at museums and that can give you a idea.

  4. Shame on you! My culture is not a fashion trend! These are our customs - not a costume party!

  5. The picture you posted of the "Cherokee girl" is an Apache girl... We never dressed like that. Just a heads up. I think it's cool that you are trying to show people diversity among indigenous people though and do not show us as having all been plains ndns.

  6. The picture you posted are really amazing.Keep writing.Seminole Apparel