Regalia crafted by either its wearer or someone close to them expresses Potawatomi culture, history and tradition as well as that individual’s personality. People often pick colors and patterns with special meaning to create a theme that encompasses all of the pieces of their regalia.
In particular, floral patterns have remained a prominent style for hundreds of years. However, as with any clothing or ornamental dress, time influences characteristics and ideas of fashion.
Citizen Potawatomi Nation people originated in the Great Lakes region as part of the larger Nishnabe society. They held a deep connection with Sekmekwé (Mother Earth) and constant consideration for the plant and animal life. The reverence and adoration for the beauty around them shows itself in their ceremonial clothing.
CPN Cultural Heritage Center Director Dr. Kelli Mosteller asserted that more often than not, inspiration came from the artist’s surroundings.
“It makes sense that woodland peoples do incorporate a lot of floral patterns,” she said. “Sometimes being able to obviously tell what the flower is, if it’s the maple leaf or the oak leaf or whatever it may be, and then other times just a more stylized floral pattern that incorporates not just the designs but also some of the colors that you would see in a forest setting in a heavily wooded area with a lot of water access.”
In addition to maple and oak leaves, Potawatomi also draw inspiration from tulips, water lilies and berries — both the fruit and the plant that produces it.
“When you see the vining floral pieces, you’ll have the vine that kind of runs through the design with a few key floral pieces in there,” Mosteller said. “And then, there are often those little round dots that are meant to signify the berries. That would also be part of the environment.”
Tribal member Stephanie Hawk does applique beading and creates jewelry pieces. Some of her favorite patterns include berries and woodland inspirations: strawberry earrings, daisy-style applique pieces for bags and more.
“If you look back at some of the old Potawatomi styles in the northern traditional styles, I just really like those a lot,” she said.
The modern-day association of floral patterns with women’s regalia developed over the last century. Looking through archive photos, many men wore pieces covered in them — bandolier, bags, vests, breechcloths and more.
“Say you sit down and look at 100 images of Native design pieces,” Mosteller said. “The vast majority that you see that are going to be of woodland culture are probably going to have some of that floral element to it.”
After forced relocation from the Great Lakes, new artistic inspiration came with the change in surroundings. Many Citizen Potawatomi are now from Oklahoma, which plays a role in designing their pieces. Calico fabrics are often floral, and Tribal members started to make clothing and regalia out of the lighter, cotton cloth in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“That was what was available. It was what made sense for this climate,” Mosteller said. “So actually, having the calico floral in your regalia is something that you see a lot among Potawatomi people today who are trying to really make regalia that expresses their personality.”
As CPN members reconnected with Tribal traditions and their Native heritage in the 1970s and ‘80s, the violet pattern became popular as people learned to bead and began creating regalia. It remains common. Mosteller’s ribbon shirt, skirt and shawl combine the violet pattern with fuchsias and greens that represent Oklahoma’s state tree, the redbud.
“I really love being able to see the redbud starting to bloom because that signifies for me that we probably are not going to have any more freezes and that it’s really moving into this warmer weather where I just function better,” she said. “It’s always one of those things that I highly anticipate seeing and I look forward to. So when I was choosing my colors, that’s what spoke to me.”
Expressing an individual’s personality through their regalia makes each piece unique, despite the overlap in patterns and colors. CPN tribal member and Bourassa, Curley and Pappan descendant Laura Hewuse enjoys bringing plants to life in her creations.
“Each one is special because they’re designed around the person who wears it,” she said. “I get my inspirations by talking with the individual and asking about they’re family patterns, favorite colors, flowers and more — beading those elements into the art.”
While Hewuse makes her depictions as realistic as possible, other people make combinations of colors and flora that only exist in their imagination.
“It is allowing yourself to choose colors that speak to you and put those with patterns that you would see in traditional pieces, and sometimes that means you end up with a white berry and a yellow berry. And it’s equally as beautiful,” Mosteller said. “I’ve seen belts and vests and things with maple leaves that are purple. At some point, it’s not about the realism.”
Hawk considers many different colors and designs when preparing for a new project. She often fades blues from dark to light throughout a piece and uses fire colors. Bright hues signify her style.
“I see different things in the powwow arena … and I’m like, ‘I think I could do something,’” she said. “It’s like inspiration; I’m not copying their design, but I want to pull out different aspects from different new styles and old styles and try to blend them together.”
However, creating a personal style and learning to bead or stitch takes time.
“Do your research, ask your questions, check out books, you know. Just take that time, but then, come up with something that is yours,” Mosteller said.
“When you’re trying to dress up and show your best, we do it through our clothing.”
The Citizen Potawatomi Gift Shop located inside the CPN Cultural Heritage Center sells regalia pieces and accessories as well as craft items. Visit giftshop.potawatomi.org.