Wôbanaki Women's Clothing from 1770
By 1770, some Wôbanaki people, especially those
in French or English towns, were beginning to live in
a manner very similar to that of the French and English.
They often wore the same style of clothes, lived in the
same kinds of houses, had many of the same types of possessions,
and by outward appearance, did not appear to be dramatically
different. Most Native people, however, kept some elements
of tradition by wearing moccasins and leggings, decorating
their clothing with silver ornaments, or keeping their
hair long. Some chose to keep traditional ways of life,
and acquire just a few European items. Such is the case
for the woman described here, who wears a few items of
clothing from the French Canadian people.
Wôbanaki people did not have special clothing
for sleeping. They slept in what seemed most suited for
the season. In the winter this would mean wearing several
layers to bed and in the hot weather one might sleep
Wôbanaki people believed it was a good idea to protect
sensitive areas of the body, such as joints, the neck,
ears and face, with jewelry, garters, and tattoos. By
these means, they believed that dangerous energy or spirits
could not enter their bodies. Jewelry with complicated
patterns, reflective surfaces, and dangling and jangling
pieces such as bells or metal cones, all helped to confuse
harmful forces. Porcupine quill embroidery, beading,
fringe, and ribbons might be added to the edges of clothing,
both to offer protection and to encourage connections
with desirable plants and animals. For instance, the
hem of a skirt might be decorated with ribbon, or the
flaps on a pair of moccasins might be decorated with
beads or porcupine quill embroidery.
Among the numerous items available through trade in
the 1770s were wool and linen cloth, ready-made shirts
and coats, knitted wool hats and mittens, felted wool
hats, glass beads, silver jewelry, brass kettles, paint
pigments such as vermillion, and metal axe and spear
heads and knife blades. Native American people in New
England would trade with the French in New France or
the English in the American colonies. Items they received
might come from England, France, Holland, or as far away
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This wool dress is decorated with ribbons, white glass beads, and silver trade pins called "brooches". It is interesting to note that wool cloth used for clothing by the W˘banaiak was usually either red or blue.
Face Paint and Tatoos
Tattoos were put on the body for a variety of reasons. On men, some tattoos were marks of valor and others were used to cover skin injuries, or were placed on powerful parts of the body such as around the eyes, or on the chest, joints, or bow and trigger fingers. Some tattoos, such as those on this woman's face, served as barriers against harmful spirits. Tattoos were also used to deaden nerves, to relieve various aches, and to attract healing energy to specific parts of the body. Generally, women did not have as many tattoos as men did. The red face paint this woman wears shows that she is happy. For a woman, wearing face paint was similar to wearing makeup.
These are deerskin leggings, called “medasal”.
They are tied to a belt at the waist to keep them up. Leggings
were worn for warmth and to protect one's legs when walking
through scratchy undergrowth.
Sash & Garters
This woman wears a sash around her waist and garters,
called “kiganibial”, tied on just under her knees.
The sash and garters are made from wool yarn, using a technique
called "fingerweaving". As the name suggests, fingerweaving
is a way to weave by braiding using just the fingers, instead
of weaving on a loom. The garters help to keep the woman's
leggings in place.
These are summer-weight moccasins with a center seam.
They are made from the hide of a white-tailed deer. The Abenaki
word for all kinds of shoes is "mkezenal".
Jewelry was worn by men and women. The earrings seen here
are made of silver. The cones served as bells, making a pleasant
sound when they moved. People often slept with their earrings
on. Earrings are called “saksohanal”.
This woman wears a variety of necklaces. A necklace is called
a “nôpkoan”, a thing that circles. Several
of these “nôpkoanal” are made from glass
beads and one strand is wampum (cylindrical beads used for
jewelry, ceremonies, and currency). The purple beads are made
from quahog clam shells collected from the New England seacoast.
The white beads are made from whelk shells. She also wears
a woven necklace of blue and white glass wampum.
This is a silver ornament for the hair. This woman's hair
is wrapped with white ribbon and the hair ornament is placed
over it. She also wears a red ostrich feather in her hair.
She would have received these items in trade.
This basket is made from birch bark, with the white outer
layer on the inside of the basket. A basket is an “abazenoda”,
literally a container made from a tree; a birch bark basket
is a “maskwainoda”, a container made from a birch
tree. Baskets were made both for trade and for personal use.
One like this would be useful for gathering berries, roots,
or nuts, since the inner layer of birch naturally helps preserve
The French call this kind of hooded coat a "capot".
The Wôbanakiak call a large overcoat like this a "kchi
pikizon". It overlaps in front to button at the shoulder,
and a sash holds it closed at the waist. This capot is
made of wool. Capots were originally worn by sailors as raincoats
and were adapted for use in the woods. They were very
popular in the Indian trade.
This fan is made of turkey feathers.
The Abenaki word for tobacco pouch is "odamowinôda".
This pouch has been decorated with white glass beads, paint,
and a tuft of deer hair dyed red. A stone pipe can be seen
in the opening of the pouch. Women smoked pipes, as men did,
for various purposes including healing, relaxation, or prayer.
The pouch would contain tobacco and materials needed to start
a fire, such as a steel striker and flints.
Between the tobacco pouch and the knife is a small mirror
in a wooden frame. It might not only have been used as a mirror,
but as a shiny object to help scare away harmful spirits. The
Abenaki call a mirror a “pipinawiakwigan”, which
literally means a container that holds an image and turns it
A knife could be used for a variety of tasks, from cutting
food to carving wood or basket splints. The sheath is decorated
with white glass beads and paint. The wooden barrel-shaped
bead serves as a toggle to help keep the knife on a belt.
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