Shirts Powdered Red: Haudenosaunee Women and the Politics of Atlantic Consumer Civility 1600-1860

Below is a summary of my book manuscript in progress, Shirts Powdered Red: Haudenosaunee Women and the Politics of Atlantic Consumer Civility 1600-1860


Osissijenejo bought a linen shirt on her way to pick berries in the summer of 1679; Caroline Parker carefully tanned and sewed leather for a pair of moccasins the summer after her first year at the New York State Teachers’ College in 1848. Spanning almost two centuries, their shirt and moccasins encapsulate the changes and continuities in Haudenosaunee ties to the European, American and Atlantic world of goods from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.1

The cloth for Osissijenejo’s shirt was woven in Europe to Native specifications and sewn in Albany, New York by a Dutch widow who derived her primary support from sewing for the Indian market. Osissijenejo carried the shirt home to what is now Buffalo, New York, painting it red with bone grease and powdered stone imported from China by a French trader who found the practice repulsive. Worn by Osissijenejo’s husband Nachsassija, this shirt powdered red marked him out at treaty negotiations with British and French officials as interested in their trade, but disinterested in the social and religious mores which his European counterparts believed would inevitably follow from Native adoption of imported European clothing. As an object, this linen shirt lacked cultural meaning and significance of its own, but its use, wear and reuse gave it symbolic weight which European missionaries and government officials would fret over ceaselessly for the next two centuries. Buried with its last owner in 1700 and disinterred in 1990 by a white hobby archaeologist on the eve of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the physical remains of this shirt also carry the weight of colonialist claims to indigenous bodies, lands and histories.

Caroline Parker tanned a deer hide during the 1848 summer break between courses as she exchanged letters with young New York attorney Lewis Henry Morgan, explaining points of religion, philosophy and grammar to him. Morgan, infatuated with Parker since they met several years before, asked her to make a suit of Indian clothes first for his own use, and later another for donation to the new New York State Museum. Parker trimmed the moccasins with delicate glass beads purchased in Canada and imported silk velvet ribbon, a silent rebuttal to the reservation mission school where she had been taught to spin, weave and sew, sponsored by both the federal and state governments in an attempt to assimilate Native groups into an imagined homespun Americanness. Sewing during the contentious summer of 1848 as white abolitionist women met in Seneca Falls and as Parker’s own community fractured over removal west and the establishment of an elective government which would end women’s traditional roles in governance, Parker also created a dress of red calico to be worn with the moccasins. Though Morgan provided her with cash and insisted repeatedly that she purchase the best materials available, Parker used cloth from her family’s portion of the federal government’s annual payment from the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, which recognized the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee as nations forever independent of the United States. Pairing this red calico dress with moccasins trimmed in imported silks, Parker created a statement of Haudenosaunee femininity as inherently political, commercial, and sovereign, a statement which was enshrined in the New York State Museum as the definition of traditional Iroquois identity. As physical objects, Parker’s moccasins and dress have been put on display by the Museum ever since as examples of the erasure of Haudenosaunee culture by European products. As symbolic objects, Parker’s explicitly political intent in creating them has been erased in the process because of their domestic, feminine associations.

In the fraught centuries of contact and exchange between European settlers and Haudenosaunee people, clothing and its symbolic associations has played a particularly weighty role. For Europeans, the daily performance of civility included binary gender roles of subdued, laboring masculinity and modest, chaste femininity; the restraint of the lower impulses of the body; agricultural and commercial labor; and rituals of respectability such as tea service and coffeehouse culture for elites, all of these performances mediated by the use of clothing and material culture in correct ways. Closely tied to Christian values and European self-image as Christians, civility was a necessary prerequisite to Christian conversion. Osissijenejo’s shirt was one of the most foundational signals of material civility in European understanding, and yet when powdered in red paint and combined with garments like breechclouts and leggings, Haudenosaunee consumers utilized the most basic signal of civility to construct a distinctly and deliberately Native identity.

As a record of indigenous women’s daily, domestic choices, Osissijenejo’s shirt and Parker’s dress and moccasins reflect their conscious and unconscious self-positioning in both their own communities and larger regional and global networks of power. At the heart of Haudenosaunee communities’ domestic decision making away from the frontiers of contact with settler colonies, these women’s choices shaped the economic and political face their nations presented to the world. In a period most copiously recorded from a European or American perspective, clothing offers an indirect way to examine Native women’s agency in structuring their subsistence and commercial activities; in rejecting and remolding colonialist signifiers; and in inviting and directing the impact of global trade in their local contexts.4 Clothing is a productive lens through which to examine how individuals choose to position themselves; how race, gender and communities are socially constructed and perceived; and how tensions over changes in religion, consumption, and labor are worked out on a daily basis—especially in cross-cultural contact.

Clothing marks an individuals’ social position as they, their community, and their observers perceive it. Although an indirect record, clothing is a product of both conscious and unconscious choices to engage with local and global conditions. As a site of contestation over civility and therefore political legitimacy from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century (and in the present), Haudenosaunee clothing and consumer choices are evidence of indigenous agency in global context more typically recorded from European and American perspective. Clothing in all its forms is inherently political. The choice to buy or wear clothing which fits perfectly within socially constructed expectations for one’s gender, race, age or social position implicitly upholds and helps reconstruct those roles, while the conscious or unconscious choice to clothe oneself outside those norms implicitly or explicitly pushes on the boundaries of social categories and their political reality. As a daily practice, this push and pull against constructed boundaries is often unspoken in lived experience, but often comes to the fore as an explicit position in situations of cross-cultural contact. Communities construct social roles and their costumes gradually over time, piece by piece.

While seventeenth and eighteenth century Haudenosaunee consumers incorporated manufactured cloth and tailored clothing into their own systems of signification, European misbelief in the stability of clothing as a signifier of civility fueled hopes for Native education, conversion and incorporation. Eighteenth century British imaginings of civil Indians and their own expansive empire left room for Haudenosaunee incorporation within the British empire, and education of Native people in the proper deployment of clothing as a signifier of civility featured prominently in the ambitions of British American reformers like Eleazar Wheelock and his white alumni.

As a token of civility, clothing also functioned as a marker of political legitimacy, an increasingly contested concept as Haudenosaunee political sovereignty threatened nascent American sovereignty. American Revolutionary-era theft of Haudenosaunee property sought to deny Haudenosaunee people access to both Haudenosaunee and European consumer signifiers of civility and therefore political legitimacy, while post-Revolution American efforts to enforce an imagined version of ‘playing American’ on Haudenosaunee reservations attempted to impose clothing as a signifier of a singular, and specifically American, mold of political legitimacy.

The era of removal on Haudenosaunee reservations prompted the articulation by both proponents and opponents of removal of an understanding of Native material identity that continues to color conflicts regarding land claims and New York State’s attempts to tax and regulate the sale of gasoline and cigarettes on Haudenosaunee reservations. Although Americans in the Revolutionary and immediate post-Revolutionary period had viewed neither Native individuals nor nations as politically compatible with the American nation, by the Removal period white advocates both for and against Haudenosaunee removal argued that Native individuals might be politically incorporated, but only if Haudenosaunee nations no longer existed as distinct political entities. This distinction between Native individuals and Native nations fuels wider white American resentment of modern Native claims to protected status in a variety of contexts.7 In the American formulation, Native individuals might be included in modernity and claims to political equity by assimilating to American signifiers of material civility, but at the price of the existence of Native nations as politically distinct entities with their own culture and distinct signifiers.

This historical British and American mistake of the signifier for the signified has bled over into the historiography in ways which erase indigenous agency in colonial contexts. By focusing on frontiers of contact, cultural mediators, and hybrid forms of dress, the scholarly analysis of Native adoption of European cloth and clothing has overly emphasized contexts in which European significations were preserved in Native use of European clothing, rather than the much more widespread homeland use of clothing within Native systems of signification.

The Haudenosaunee were unique in some ways that allowed them to keep control of their lands for longer than some other eastern Native groups, but the Haudenosaunee experience can be used to examine the history of trade and Native political economy more broadly in early America. Their long experience of trade without colonialism or dependency shows that Native groups could and did engage with the Atlantic market in ways that reinforced rather than undermined their sovereignty. The nations of the Haudenosaunee confederacy used European goods to construct a visually distinct political identity, at the same time reducing women’s daily labor by outsourcing the creation of basic clothing items to white workers in Albany, French Canada, and Europe.

The current scholarship of Native trade and economic history in early America overstates both the role of violence in Native economic life and the damage done to Native communities by trade with Europeans. Based on the experience of Native groups in New England and the Southeast, on examinations of post-colonial relations, or proceeding from presumptions of inevitable Native decline in the face of European colonization, this scholarship mistakes effect for cause, arguing that sustained engagement with European trade caused Native groups to engage in a spiral of market-driven hunting that fueled violence and economic dependence that inevitably led their communities to succumb to colonialism.

Recent scholarship on early modern European consumers has explored the new avenues of choice and self-determination made available to women and men throughout the Anglophone Atlantic World and the ways in which consumers used goods to declare community, family and other affiliations. However, relatively little similar work has been done on non-white communities, and what work there is on the adoption of manufactured goods in Native American groups stresses the destruction of traditional culture. In the literature of the early modern European and Euro-American consumer revolution, women’s purchasing roles are framed as evidence of their agency, and consumption has been framed as both a unifying political act and an exercise of individual self-determination.

The scholarship on Native trade focuses largely on dependency and cultural damage as the cause of land loss and economic underdevelopment. Native economic dependence was strongly tied to the ability to control their own lands, and flattening tribal and national differences obscures the uneven and contingent nature of colonialism and dependency in early America. By universalizing the experience of communities that bore the brunt of early colonial wars and epidemics, and that were wracked by debt and indenture to white landowners, the scholarship of Native history in early America replicates narratives of the inevitably vanishing Indian and erases the agency of individual Native people and nations.

Shirts Powdered Red is located at the intersection of recent work in Native studies which highlights indigenous power in shaping contact and scholarship on the Atlantic consumer revolution which examines social constructions of the body and economic activity. This study foregrounds Native agency and examines the ways in which Haudenosaunee women used clothing to construct race, gendered power, and political legitimacy, expanding the literature of the consumer revolution to include consideration of non-white purchasers and pushing back against scholarly narratives of American Indian cultural decline damaged by trade with Europeans. Examining Haudenosaunee women’s consumer and clothing choices revises current scholarly understanding of Native American trade dependence, the construction of racial categories in early America, and how Natives and Europeans envisioned their political and cultural compatibility in both the pre- and post-American Revolution periods.

1I use Haudenosaunee here rather than Iroquois to emphasize the indigenous experiences and cultural frameworks. In doing so, I use Haudenosaunee as a political identifier to denote members of the Six Nations, rather than the culturally related and sometimes politically aligned Mingo of the Ohio Valley or the Laurentian communities of Kahnawake or Akwasasne. At times, I use “Iroquois” to denote European or American interpretations of Haudenosaunee people as a cultural or political group.