My Native American Regalia Ambitions

Grand Portage Treasure... Re-creating The Hiawatha Dress

My family is originally from Grand Portage, Minnesota. In the search for my Mother's Grandmother, I came across this collection of paintings by Eastman Johnson, painted in Grand Portage around 1856.

He was most famous for his rendition of "Hiawatha", a painting he painted with the use of Grand Portage regalia created for this purpose by the local women of the Grand Portage Tribe of Ojibwe.

It occurred to me that I am descended from a long line of expert hand seamstresses, and the woman who created the dress may very well have been my relation. I was also intrigued with the design of this garment, how did the sleeves work? Were they useful, or just ornamentation? The paintings seem to depict a usefulness, one even showing a family paddling a canoe with the sleeves on. These were more than just ornamentation, to be set aside at work time, as has been suggested.
I then found that the garment used in the painting was currently in storage at the Depot in Duluth, just an hour or so from my home so I made an appointment with the curator to photograph. and measure the "Strap Dress" depicted in the painting. After examining the garment I decided to recreate the dress myself, to see what this dress really looked like and how it was worn to honor my Heritage.
I used an Swiss army blanket as my "mock-up" as the material used by natives at this time was imported "Stroud" or "list" cloth from England. Re-created "stroud" wool costs more than $75.00 a half yard. I also was toying with the idea that this dress was originally made in deer hide and the wool blanket had the thickness that approximated hide texture and weight.

The army blanket was much thicker so the plans did have to be slightly altered, but I am very pleased with the results. 

I am wrapped in a 1 1/2 point Hudson Bay match coat in Hudson Bay colors of Red & Black. The white blankets shown in the painting represent the American Fur Company, which took over from Hudson's Bay around this time.

I later created the blue wool dress shown above that more closely resembles the historic garment. I am still working on the bead work for this garment and will probably never be done adding to it. 

My proudest moment was wearing it to the Grand Portage Powwow in 2006, and showing it to my Grandmother Lorraine.  

My latest project is to recreate the leather strap dress I discovered in the Chicago Field History Museum as well as the create the dress that my good friend Mia let me borrow and make a patten from and as if that isn't enough, I have plans to make a two hide dress from Elk hide also.

I do not know exactly why I started on this particular journey, I now have more than 15 years of research on just the clothing alone.

It seems there is an Old Spirit within me that keeps whispering to me to keep doing what I am doing. I have vivid dreams of details and events that keep me going when all reasons to do so abandon me. I am simply driven to continue whether I choose to do so or not. 

Maybe it is just the Spirit of my Mother, who taught me to hand sew expertly and carefully, giving me a great appreciation for natural fabrics and creating well tailored clothing. I certainly hope I do her justice in my endeavours.

During my quest, I have returned to my past and attended Native American Gatherings and Powwows, meeting wonderful people who I never would have met otherwise.

I certainly have benefited from the experience and it has made my life much fuller. This is a pleasant end in itself and I am grateful to all who have taken me in as Family and taught me things that have made my journey meaningful and fruitful.
Mia's Dress

Strap Dress


  1. love your blog! I hope you write a book one day as I will buy it! Your strap dress is lovely and I hope to make one, one day. Michelle Lee

  2. Hello, do you offer classes on making strap dresses here in Minnesota?



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