A Sioux quilled war shirt
Lot 2234
A Sioux quilled war shirt
Sold for US$ 170,000 inc. premium

Fine Native American Art

6 Dec 2010, 12:00 PST

San Francisco

Lot Details
Property of various owners
A Sioux quilled war shirt
An open-sided poncho-style example, quilled strips across the shoulders and along the sleeves, a quilled and fringed neck tab hung on each side, green dye applied over the upper area, ochre dye coloring the remainder, lengthy fringe suspensions.
length 44in, width 65in


  • Provenance:
    Arthur Soergel collection, Elgin, IL; to the present owner. Mr. Soergel, born in 1888, started collecting Native American art and artifacts at the age of 8 and continued throughout most of his life until his passing at the age of 95. Most of the collection was gathered in and around the city of Elgin, though a notable exception was the material traded or purchased from a Mr. Carter "who was reared on a homestead near the site of Custer's last stand...He sold Arthur a pipe bag that had been found there belonging to General Custer. The collection has been in Mr. Soergel's possession since the early 1900's." (from a family letter regarding the collection that accompanies this lot).


    Superb, artfully elaborate American Indian shirts such as this example assuredly commanded great respect and admiration from the Native People themselves. Traditionally, a man could possess and wear a garment of the kind only with the approval of his immediate community, warrior society, band - or even his entire tribe. Shirts of the genre denoted a person of stature, a person esteemed for his accomplishments, who showed good judgment, was generous by nature and concerned for his people. He could counsel wisely, was brave, successful in the hunt. Importantly, the man was actively engaged in protecting the citizens from enemies. He distinguished himself in combat - hence the common, generic designation, "warshirt", for this object type. Perhaps along with the much celebrated golden eagle feather "warbonnet", warshirts yet today epitomize the Plains Indian man as the "warrior" of history more than any other media.

    American Indians of the Plains and Greater West favored bighorn sheep hides for garments — especially for leggings, dresses, and shirts. With utmost care they masterfully tanned the hides and constructed these garments. In keeping with the tradition the makers utilized virtually the entire skins of animals to preserve and impart a measure of their strengths and abilities to the respective wearers. The tail of each animal often remains as part of an article of clothing. Prior to tanning the hide the tail hair might be removed, as evident at the bottom / front of this shirt, or the hair is often left intact — as on the back herein. This small detail is sufficient to identify the species of animal as being unequivocally bighorn sheep / mountain sheep.

    Originally the people adorned those garments intended for best dress events primarily with bands and trim of porcupine quillwork and / or bird quillwork. This shirt boasts wide, exquisitely quilled strips and neck tabs in "lanestitch"— a technique from which beadwork in like technique later devolved. Many warshirts exhibit large areas covered with paint that served not only as decoration, but undoubtedly conveyed emblematic connotations. Only in the rare instances where explicit oral history exists are we privileged to greater knowledge and understanding. Likewise, explicit meaning of the motifs worked into the quilled strips and neck tabs of this shirt remains veiled. Although the elongated diamond-shaped designs are generally considered to represent feathers, we cannot be sure of this symbolic assignation. It is possible that "feather" is the term used even by the original artist to name these given motifs, but the motifs could well stand for another concept. As with much American Indian symbolism exact meanings most frequently remain matters of conjecture.

    Turning again to painted leather - as with painting rawhide packing cases (parfleches), the powdered pigments were mixed with some sort of liquid binder or glue — but to a lesser amount. In addition, in order to finish the painting process, vigorously rubbing the surface of the leather helped the pigment to permeate the hide, as well as remove excess paint.

    Various features present in this shirt lead to attributing it to one of the more northerly groups of Western Sioux, or Lakota, as the people term themselves. While in effect, all Plains Indians made shirts of this general type, this shirt evinces primarily Lakota characteristics — the overall layout, the way it is painted, the style of porcupine quillwork — and the colors and motifs therein. The point of origin is likely either the Standing Rock or Fort Peck Reservations (in North Dakota and Montana, respectively), or conceivably one of the Lakota communities yet in existence in Alberta, Canada.

    Benson Lanford
    October, 2010
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