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Lakota Girl's Dress, about 1880

American, Lakota nation
Lakota Girl's Dress, about 1880
buckskin, beads, and sinew
44 x 56 inches (112 x 142 cm)
Gift of Rev. Edward W. J. Lindesmith, C.S.C.

This beautifully beaded buckskin dress is called chuwignaka in Lakota. Its style was common to the Plains, Plateau, some Great Basin, and some Southwest cultures from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s. The aesthetics of those cultures dictated the careful preparation of the skins of elk, deer, or bighorn sheep to a shade of white. For this type of dress, two skins were sewn together, with the hind legs forming the bodice and sleeves. The cut of the sleeves—tapered at the ends and slightly curved along the inner seam—is typical of Lakota dresses. The sleeves and bottom of the dress were fringed, and the beads were sewn onto the bodice using the “lazy stitch” technique. Solid beading of the bodice, as seen here, did not begin until the mid-1870s, when seed beads became readily available. Such beaded dresses were worn for special occasions and dances. This example was purchased in 1883 by Father Lindesmith, a Catholic priest and commissioned chaplain, from the scout Wolf Voice. Both men were assigned to the Seventh Cavalry of the U.S. Army.

The designs on Lakota women’s clothing include those of supernatural significance as well as those of personal preference, representing both the seen and unseen worlds. A background of light blue beadwork is common and symbolizes a body of water in which the blue sky is reflected. Narrow bands of beadwork form the border for the blue field and are said by old-time bead workers to indicate the shore. Traditionally, the designs within the blue field signify the reflections of supernatural beings who live in the sky or on the lakeshore; stars and clouds are often depicted. Some Lakota women say the cross denotes the Morning Star, others it is the Four Winds or Directions. Still others have indicated it is only decorative. The U-shaped figure directly in the center of the lower bodice symbolizes Turtle (the U shape stands for Turtle’s breast), and the red double crosses represent dragonflies. In Lakota belief, both Turtle and Dragonfly have protective power for women.