Native American shirt returns home after 300 years

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The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has just acquired a new Native American shirt, and in doing so has returned it to its homeland after an absence of more than 300 years.

“It does not get any better than this – it’s amazing,” beams curator Joe Horse Capture.

Why?

“This is one of the earliest Native American objects from what we now know as Minnesota that exists. There’s no other shirt like this anywhere,” says Horse Capture. “But it’s not in Europe, it’s not in Brooklyn, it’s right here at home. So if you’re from the local Native American community, you can now see something created by one of your ancestors – something older than the United States of America – right here at the MIA.”

While the details of the shirt’s history are a little fuzzy, Horse Capture thinks he has a good idea of what happened to it.

“At one point when this whole area was known as New France,” explains Horse Capture. “The royalty back home in France heard about Native Americans and their culture, and asked explorers to bring examples back with them.”

Like many artifacts collected at the time, the shirt would have most likely been placed in a “cabinet of curiosities” (the private precursors to museums). Many of those objects were lost in the French Revolution. This shirt, like other items collected at the time, is coated in arsenic, which was used as a preservative.

In a soon-to-be published article written by Horse Capture about the shirt, he states:

There are less than 35 surviving objects from the early 1700s decorated with abstract painting from the Great Lakes and or Easterns Plains region, and they are mostly in European collections. This is the only shirt of this group known to exist.

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Close-up image of the shirt collar

After being auctioned into various private art collections in France, Germany and Canada, the MIA purchased the shirt at Christie’s in January for $362,500.

What makes the shirt so unique is its mix of imagery. Covered in abstract patterns, Horse Capture says the shirt would have been made by a woman for a man. The images themselves – which evoke shapes of thunderbirds and lightning bolts – are reminiscent of images uses in two different regions – the woodlands, and the plains.

Minnesota is known as the land where the plains meet the woodlands.

“Some people agree, some people disagree,” says Horse Capture. “There’s no other example of this pattern anywhere else in the world, so there’s a certain amount of speculation. But in the Great Lakes Region and the Plains Region, both show similar imagery.”

Horse Capture says he believes the shirt belonged to the Dakota, and was probably made in the early 1700s.

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As part of his work to verify the shirts authenticity, Horse Capture has examined it under infrared light, which allowed him to see that certain stitching on one cuff had been re-done within the last 100 years. It also renders more visible the scrape-marks made when the hide was being cleaned and stretched. One can even see where the artist doing the design work covered over a mistake on the sleeve.

“Looking at this, it really shows a sophisticated level of artistic abstraction,” says Horse Capture. “This is not her first work, she knew what she was doing. Although it’s nearly 300 years old, it still has a very modern feel to it. It’s an unbelievable artistic legacy that has been left behind in these objects.”

Horse Capture says the purchase of this shirt increases the strength of the MIA’s Native American collection by several notches. But just as importantly, he says, the shirt helps the museum to meet its mission of reflecting the community in which it resides.

The shirt, which was accessioned into the museum’s collection earlier this week, will be placed in MIA’s Gallery 260 on Monday, when the museum is closed. The public will be able to see it as soon as doors open on Tuesday.

  • catherine scott

    I think that is awesome, and a lot more should be returned.