The Sam Noble Museum’s exhibit, A Giving Heritage: Wedding Clothes and the Osage Community, explores the history of bridal attire among the Osage, a Native American community centered in northeastern Oklahoma.
“The idea for this exhibit came from a book project I discussed with my friend and colleague, Jim Cooley,” said Dan Swan, the curator of the exhibition. “We were both interested in the Osage people and wanted to write a book about the tribe when we realized one thing that’s never been addressed before is Osage wedding attire.”
Osage wedding attire is an interesting, unusual aspect of Native American culture. Military jackets and top hats, originally used as gifts from the U.S. government for Osage chiefs and leaders, were repurposed as the bridal attire worn in a traditional Osage wedding.
“The regalia really has this amazing history,” said Swan. “In the early 1900s, the U.S. government would bring Native American delegations to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate the power and might of the United States. Then, they would shower the chiefs and leaders with gifts to recognize their political rank and status.”
Some of the mostprized gifts given to visiting delegations were the U.S. military coats and hats, which eventually became known as chief coats. Osage men were much taller and more statured than the American military officers, so the coats were far too demure for them to wear. The chiefs ended up taking the coats home and giving them to their daughters.
“These coats quickly became a status symbol among the Osage,” said Swan. “You knew you were marrying the daughter of a chief if she was wearing one of these coats at the wedding.”
After the supply of coats from the U.S. government ran out, the Osage people started making coats of their own. Marriages that warranted a coat were arranged by the parents, to ensure that Osage men and Osage women joined together to have healthy Osage children.
“This form of holy matrimony is called mizhin,” said Swan. “Couples that were married this way were considered blue bloods or royalty.”
While mizhin was a way of life in the 19th century, it didn’t last forever. By the 1930s, Osage boys and girls pursued romantic marriage instead of arranged ones. The role of the wedding coat then shifted.
After World War II, the wedding attire became incorporated into the Ilonshka—the Osage form of the Plains Grass Dance and an important aspect of Osage society.
“Bridal coats and hats were used in the ‘paying for the drum’ ceremony of the Ilonshka,” said Swan. “The wedding clothes symbolized the transfer of leadership in the dance and celebrated the virtues of hospitality and generosity.”
Several of these coats are part of the exhibition at the Sam Noble Museum, along with silk top hats embellished with brightly colored plumes.
“There’s about 100 years of history in this exhibit,” said Swan. “There are coats that were made in the 1910s and the 2010s.”
The exhibit first opened in August 2017 at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University. It then traveled to the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in May 2018 and arrived at the Sam Noble Museum on Sept. 14. Pieces included in the exhibit come from the collections of the Sam Noble Museum, the Gilcrease Museum, the Philbrook Museum of Art and the personal collections of many Osage community members.
A Giving Heritage: Wedding Clothes and the Osage Community, will be on display through Dec. 8.