War shirts are powerful, sacred garments imbued with deep cultural meaning; they embody the fearless Native American warriors who once wore them.
The right to wear a shirt of this caliber could only be earned through acts of extreme bravery in combat (which was often hand to hand) and by following complex rules of engagement (not every warrior earned the right to wear a war shirt by simply being present).
These great acts of bravery ranged from the death defying act of counting coup (physically touching an enemy during battle) or the dangerous task of stealing the enemy’s horses.
But once a warrior achieved the War Shirt honor, wearers of these shirts were also required to follow a strict code of conduct and continued bravery…or the shirt could be revoked.
Typically made of deer, mountain sheep, or elk skin (buffalo was too thick and heavy), the hide was brain tanned, the hair was removed, and it was scraped clean. Two hides were placed inside to inside (as if the deer were standing on its back legs) and it was then cut, folded, fitted on each side to allow for the arms, and then sewn together.
The shirts were made to respect the natural shape of the hide – leg skins hung from the bottom of the shirt and sleeves to maintain the animal’s integrity, as well as preserve the animal’s power. This organic type of construction gave the shirt a raw, powerful presence, contrasted by an ethereal and hauntingly beautiful quality.
Bead & Quillwork: Once a shirt was sewn together, a long, undesirable seam was left behind. It’s believed the strips of beautiful beadwork or quillwork often found on these sacred shirts were used to conceal this unsightly scar – two over the shoulders and two along the outer length of the sleeves.
Hair Locks & Fringe: Hair locks, often gifted to the wearer by his family, taken from an enemy, or collected from an animal, were a symbol of personal honor. These locks of hair (and sometimes fringe) also gave the shirts a commanding, very powerful presence.
Paintings: Similar to the battle exploits painted on buffalo robes, warriors often recounted their battles on their War Shirt using earth pigments. In some cases, these painted details may have also been used as an added design element to reflect cultural mythology or relate a story.
When to wear a War Shirt
These sacred shirts were only worn by the bravest warriors of the tribe.
Heavily embellished war shirts were never actually worn during combat…instead, they were only worn by the warrior during ceremonial rituals as a way to honor a warrior’s tribe and recount his battle exploits.
Shirts that featured less decoration were sometimes worn during battle to not only intimidate the enemy, but also – because death was always a possibility in hand to hand combat – because the warrior wished to die a good death in his sacred shirt.