Revisiting the Blackfoot Shirts

A partnership with many Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) people, a curator and conservator from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England and a researcher from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland brought five Blackfoot men’s shirts from Oxford back to Blackfoot Territory in 2010. The shirts travelled to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and then to the Galt Museum & Archives, where over 500 Blackfoot people saw, touched and studied them for four weeks before they went on exhibit for the general public.

UK project staff listened to stories and watched as Blackfoot students, teachers, Ceremonialists, Elders and artists prayed with and examined the 160-year old shirts. They also interviewed people from the Siksika (east of Calgary), Piikani (Brocket area), Kainai (west of Lethbridge), and Amskapii Piikani (Montana) Reserves. The information gathered from Blackfoot people has been compiled into a publication to be launched in 2014.

Earlier this year, the shirts were exhibited at the Pitt Rivers Museum with photographs and quotes from Blackfoot people who had seen them in Canada. The significance of the shirts’ visit to Alberta was clearly expressed in the words of Blackfeet Darnell Rides at the Door who said: “… to be able to see things like these shirts gives you just one more ounce of pride, and dignity”. Marvin Smith, Piikani: “… it helps to remind me who I am”, and Alison Frank-Tailfeathers from Kainai: “projects like this, are just one step closer to our keeping our culture alive.” Preservation of ceremonies, language, quillwork and identity were described eloquently by others.

The learning also extended to international museum staff who met with Blackfoot and Canadian colleagues at a 2011 conference in Oxford, to better understand the value of projects such as the Blackfoot Shirts, where information from original communities enriches the work museums do.

Curator Wendy Aitkens leads a behind-the-scenes Collections Tour with a focus on Niitsitapii artifacts on June 18 at 2:00 pm, as part of the Galt Museum & Archives twice-monthly series Wednesdays at the Galt. More information is available at