Magic Shirts

Written By: James K.  Phillips

Magic Shirts

James K. Phillips


Pow-wow season has arrived and as usual everything is being done now that should have been done during the winter and spring. Of course, during the winter no one does much except complain about the weather and put off doing that breechcloth, moccasin repair, beadwork, dress or headdress until next week, right after that favorite show finishes for the season or the time and energy arrive or whatever excuse works, until it doesn’t anymore and suddenly it’s here… summer–and there’s a gathering every weekend.

My excuse was that I still had plenty of time to do the necessary things, until time cleared out faster than Lolo Jones clears hurdles and left me scrambling with all the other procrastinators  to get everything that was supposed to be done yesterday, done NOW.

Welcome to the Pow-wow trail, where you can always find people sitting along the dance arena, in cars, RV’s, parking lots, tents and hotel rooms working on something at the last minute before the first grand entry. I’m one of those people sitting outside my tent making those last minute adjustments, trying to stitch a ‘blown out’ moccasin, or replacing the small iridescent,  copper ‘sun-catcher’ feathers on my headdress. This year I had to get new ribbon shirts made, because I only have three left and one of those looks like it was on that raft with Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’. The other two are quite soft and comfy, but if I pull just a little on a ribbon, it will not only come off in my hand, but it will also bring some shirt material along for the party. It’s happened before at the most inopportune times – like right in the middle of a dance-off.

So I enlisted the Niece, (aka ‘The Tough Girl,’ due to her shooting, truck-driving, hay- hauling and ruling-the-younger-siblings abilities) to take me ‘Up Island’-that’s anywhere west of Riverhead in ‘Rez Speak’- to a fabric store to pick out material.

The Niece is a magic girl, the eldest granddaughter of an eldest granddaughter, who is my eldest sister, who is the repository of a lot of the mid-wife and herbal knowledge left by the maternal grandmother, who knew about such things and other stuff that I am not privy to and  honestly quite happy not knowing anything about. I’m more like an instrument of their will: going into the woods to look for the herbs and plants that they use for… whatever. The Niece also has nascent powers of her own that I don’t know or want to know anything about. I do know that she is fun to be around, can shoot a bow, shotgun or rifle better than most guys, rides motorcycles, quads and horses equally well, and has a great sense of humor, the last attribute being very important if you’re taking your fashion–challenged uncle on a shopping trip.

I like the old school look, like the outfits you see in paintings by Charles Bird-King, George Catlin, or Karl Bodmer. Nice, simple floral or calico prints in natural colors. The Niece picked fabrics of green, blue and yellow which were beautiful. And she really is a whole lot better at picking out ribbon to accentuate the colors than I am or could ever hope to be. I joked with the counter girl wearing interesting makeup, as I watched her cut up the cloth, wrap it nicely and ring me up. I asked her if you needed any special training to work in a big fabric store and she sighed as only a bored teen can and said, “nah, you just have to apply and show up on time.”  The Niece rolled her eyes and muttered, “OMG”, either at my lameness or the up island girl’s response, before grabbing the bag and walking quickly out of the store. But the fun was just beginning. The next part was getting the shirts made.

The women who make my ribbon shirts are from a large family full of magic girls and all of them–mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces and aunts–have the mischievous, acerbic and quick sense of humor I’m so used to in Shinnecock women. They speak very quietly and smile a lot, which is really nice, but scary at the same time. I love to listen to them talking to each other in their secret language, discussing what each shirt should look like. It’s like hearing sparrows singing in the branches of a cedar overhead, you know they’re saying something important but you’re unsure just what and then they’ll turn and look your way and laugh before continuing.