Exploring Dakota ribbonwork in the Bishop Whipple collections

Ribbonwork is an indigenous North American art. While the materials involved are  almost entirely of European origin and production, the work itself is firmly rooted in pre-contact techniques and artistic expressions. Ribbonwork is usually associated with indigenous nations from the Great Lakes and the southern Great Plains. The Dakota have generally been ignored as ribbonworkers, yet these collections demonstrate otherwise.

This art began to take hold in the Great Lakes region in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The Dakota had long been involved in a vast network of trade that eventually brought them silk ribbons of European manufacture. They also had extensive contact with other nations known for ribbonwork, especially the Ho-Chunk. Some of the earliest visual records of Dakota people wearing clothing with ribbonwork are sketches and paintings by Seth Eastman, who was stationed at Fort Snelling during the 1840s.

An appliqué technique, ribbonwork usually decorates the edges of clothing, blankets, and moccasins. A ribbon--initially silk, though contemporary artists generally use taffeta--is cut and folded under to create "peaks" and "valleys" and then sewn onto the base fabric. The next ribbon is either cut in the same pattern and sewn next to the first, creating a thick line, or cut in a mirror image of the previous one and sewn down to create a shape.

Ribbonwork can be divided into two aesthetic categories: curvilinear and geometric. The Dakota objects in the Whipple collections use the geometric style to decorate moccasins (ozuha), leggings, a shirt, mitten cuffs, and small bags (hanpikceka). These objects were made and used by the Dakota in Minnesota for much of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Some of the foremost Dakota ribbonwork artists represented in the collections are Makpedaga Sarah Good Thunder, Esther Walker St. Clair Hart, and Mazasinawin Mary Red Cloud. Sarah Good Thunder probably made the moccasins worn by her husband, Wakinyanwaste Andrew Good Thunder (fig. 1), and then decorated the vamps with ribbonwork (for an example of this see MHS 1548.A,B). These moccasins are remarkably similar to those worn by Good Thunder. Another similar pair exists in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, but are attributed to having been collected from the Ho-Chunk living in Nebraska in the early twentieth century (NMAI 14/1035). Within the Whipple Collection housed at the Science Museum of Minnesota, several Dakota items of clothing also exhibit this linear use of ribbonwork to decorate the edges and seams of clothing. An example of clothing edges can be seen in a woman's legging (SMM A79:4:88) that is exquisitely decorated with ribbonwork on the front and back side flaps as well as the cuff. These designs display an affinity to those used throughout the Great Lakes area, however, the colors utilized are exceptionally vibrant.

A set of men's clothing (SMM A79:4:153 and A79:4:154) made of finely tanned deerskin demonstrates the use of ribbon to mask clothing seams. The leggings are worn with the seam in the front. This presented the artist with the opportunity to cover this seam in ribbonwork consisting of five separate ribbons that were sewn directly onto the deerskin. A finely crafted ribbon "rosette" finishes off where the seam meets the ribbonwork-decorated cuff. This set of men's clothing may have been those given to Bishop Whipple; attributed to the Yanktonai Chief Hogansapa. A similar pair of leggings exists in the collections of the Denver Art Museum. These leggings may be of Dakota origin and were collected by the Swiss Count Albert de Portales in 1833.  The Count is known to have visited Fort Snelling and traded with the Dakota and Ojibwe.

Perhaps the most unique ribbonwork within the entire Bishop Whipple Collection are the deerskin mittens (SMM A79:4:55.A,B). The cuffs of these mittens are of trade wool that was commonly used for leggings and blankets. Unlike the ribbonwork on the woman's leggings, this design is unlike any that are usually associated with either the Great Lakes or the Great Plains ribbonworking tribes. This ribbonwork consists of fourteen layers of ribbon. Upon close examination, a wide base ribbon of red was first basted onto the wool backing, then the several blue, green, and pink ribbons were cut and folded into rectangular shapes, then another four rows of red, purple, white, and green ribbons were cut and folded into "peaks" and "valley" to create the diamond shape pattern surrounding the four internal triangular shapes. A similar technique can be observed on a wearing blanket housed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and is also attributed to being Dakota.

Yet another distinctive use of the geometric style is to decorate the curved edges of moccasin vamps and bags (MHS 1863.A,B; 1544.A,B; 1862.A,B; 1546.A.1,2; 1545.A.1,2; 1545.B.1,2; 1546.B.1,2; SMM A79:4:84; A79:4:85). While it none of these moccasins can be definitely attributed to Sarah Good Thunder, she was clearly wearing a pair of moccasins that demonstrate this same technique in an image taken of her around 1890 (fig. 2). This technique requires the artist to carefully gather the interior curve of each ribbon in order for the piece to lie flat. The interior edges of both the moccasin vamps and the bags also display a stitching. Perhaps the moccasin vamps inspired the creation of these bags. Interestingly, the designs created by this technique are quite similar to the beadwork designs upon several other Dakota pairs of moccasins within the Bishop Whipple Collections (MHS 1541.A1,2; 1541.B.1,2; 1542.A,B). Ribbonwork is typically used to decorate the cuffs of moccasins, rather than the vamps. Perhaps the Dakota artists were inspired to replace their use of beads to decorate moccasins vamps with ribbonwork.

The ribbonwork within the Bishop Whipple collections displays a tremendous variety of the uses of ribbonwork and designs by Dakota artists. Their work demonstrates several unique and distinctive Dakota innovations and contributions to this indigenous art that has recently enjoyed a renaissance among Indigenous communities.


"The following day, - it was that of our arrival at the Fort (Snelling), - we came upon a very large encampment of the same tribe (Dakota), stretching along the forested shore, just above the range of beautiful white sandstone acclivities. There may have been thirty or forty lodges; among which we landed, partly from curiosity, and partly to barter for Indian pipes and ornaments, of which my comrade (Count Albert de Portales) was desirous of making a collection." From Charles Joseph Latrobe, The Rambler in North America: 1832-1833, Volume 2, 288.


For further reading about ribbonwork:

Ackerman, Brenda Papakee. "The tradition of Meskwaki Ribbonwork: Cultural Meanings, Continuity, and Change." MS thesis, Iowa State University, 2008.

Feder, Norman. "Ribbon Decoration." The American Indian Hobbyist. Oct/Nov, 1956.

Gilman, Carolyn. Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1982).

Horse Capture, George P.,ed. Native American Ribbonwork: A Rainbow Tradition. (Cody, WY: Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 1980).

Kelly, Helen. Scarlet Ribbons. (Folsom, LA: Written Heritage, 1999).

Neill, Susan M. "Emblems of Ethnicity: Ribbonwork Garments from the Great Lakes Region," Chapter 5 in Michael S Nassaney and Eric S Johnson, eds. Interpretations of Native North American Life: Material Contributions to Ethnohistory. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000).

Pannabecker, Rachel K. "Ribbonwork of the Great Lakes Indians." (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 1986).

Penney, David W. Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992).

Penney, David W. Great Lakes Indian Art. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989).

Smith, Jerry. "Osage Style Ribbon-work." Moccasin Tracks, February 1978.

Stewart, Tyrone H. "Oklahoma Delaware Women's Dance Clothes." American Indian Crafts and Culture, July 1973.

Exploring Dakota ribbonwork in the Bishop Whipple collections