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Lakota Music and Dance

Old-Style Sioux Mess Bustle

Before the advent of the modern celebration known as the powwow came to be, each tribe had its own style of clothing and dancing that was to be used during certain times of the year. Not all tribes used what is now termed the feather bustle, also called a dance belt or crow belt. If a tribe did wear the feather bustle, not all of the male dancers wore them. Only a select few of the men were given permission to make, wear, and keep the feather bustle. The earliest documented use of the bustle was during the nineteenth century within the War Dance Societies of many plains people, such as the Pawnee, Omaha, and Sac and Fox. The use of the belt was a part of the Warrior Societies, and therefore, women were not among those that wore the crow belts.

The first crow belts had the carcasses of crows with wings splayed out and attached to leather or cloth belts, and tied around the waist. An appointed warrior or warriors would be allotted to use the belts, and all other dancers would follow the lead of the crow belt dancer(s). This dance was at one time called the Grass Dance, because such bustles were essential items used within the dance. As times changed, the dances evolved and morphed. The Grass Dance was sold and bought all through the Prairie tribes. The bustles where then used and worn by many men, and by a multitude of tribes. The ritualistic use of appointed bustle dancers was a phased out practice by the early twentieth century. Every man who could afford to make a bustle was able to wear a bustle if they chose to.

Examples of Bustles Seen at Powwows Today

There are dozens of categories and styles of bustles, but there are distinct types of bustles tend to stand out at contemporary powwows. The basic construction of a bustle is a rawhide backing, feathers attached to the rawhide, and fabric trailers that extend down from the rawhide backing. The first example of bustles discussed would be worn by what is called Men's Traditional. It is a relative large category, and the butterfly, swing and u-shaped bustles that are used are a modern style that was first used in Oklahoma. The other type of bustle used in the Men's Traditional is the feather mess bustle also called old style. The feather mess has circles of feathers connected to the rawhide backing, whereas the butterfly/swing/u-shaped bustle has the feathers individually attached to rods and rawhide backing. The butterfly/u-shaped bustle and the swing bustle has the same mechanics and very minor variations between the three. More often then not, the swing bustle is used most often with today's dancers.

The feather mess is also used for the dance style known as the Chicken Dance. The Chicken Dance is meant to mimic the movements of the Prairie Chicken. The butterfly/swing/u-shaped bustles can also be used for the dance style called Fancy Feather. The Fancy Feather dancers have two bustles. One average sized bustle attached around the waist, and another smaller duplicate bustle around the neck.

The use of the crow belt has kept its beauty in history, and fleeting memories remain to its once rich ceremonial uses. From one tribe to another, the rites and rituals were sold, and thus the evolution of the styles happened as another tribe 'improved' on what they bought. The end result is the use of bustles at contemporary powwows. These powwows show the modern evolution of these early feather bustles worn by men of all ages throughout many Plains culture powwows across the country in both traditional forms and more modern forms. All men's dances at modern Prairie style powwows are thought to have their origins from the first feather bustles used by the warrior societies hundreds of years ago.

War Dance Bustles
By Rick Hewitt, "Whispering Winds" Magazine, Spring 1987

During the examination of reservation period war dance bustles in various collections, a number of recurring factors could be noted. The bustle found among the tribes on the Central Plains during the 1880-1920 era may be composed of up to six standard features: a base, two nearly upright spikes, trailer(s), belt, tail unit, and wheel. The main purpose of this page will be to examine and compare variations commonly used for each of these six standard features.


Most often made from rawhide, the base was well worked so it was somewhat pliable. It was not uncommon to reuse an old parfleche container as noted by several bases still containing traces of painted designs. Commercial leather, while used, was not that common, even in the specimens collected in the twentieth century. The range of sizes for bases varied from 4" to 8.5" deep and 4" to 7.5" wide. Many were square when folded. The base may be prepared in three styles; folded, pillow, and rolled.

Figure A - Folded: The piece was bent in half and often secured with ties which hold the spikes in a permanent position. The back may be shorter than the front.

Figure B - Pillow: Modification of the above. First filled with cloth, hair, grass, etc., and then sewn along the three open·sides. Least common of the three.

Figure C - Rolled: The hide is loosely rolled. Sometimes a flap may extend from the roll to hold the wheel or tail.

The three most common ways the base was prepared to receive the spikes:

Figure D: This hole was made with two cuts. It was usually found in top-front of the base.

Figure E: This may be either a vertical or horizontal flap. Also found in the upper-front corner of the base.

Figure F: Complete hole, Varies in size as to how much material will fit into the hole. Top-front or top-edge of base.

To help reinforce the spikes and help maintain their nearly vertical position several techniques were employed. Some spikes were reinforced by the presence of a wood pin (approx. 3/8" diameter times the base width) located inside the base near the top (Figure G). When using the "T-cut" or the "Three sided cut", additional stability could be gained by binding the flap(s) against the spike and/or stockade (Figure H).


The second unit, the spikes, are nearly always multiple. The most frequent combination seems to be composed of the first three feathers from the bird's wing. The two longer feathers are attached to each other along the full length, but the first shorter feather is only attached at the base and may even be permanently shaped to bend out and downwards from the other two (Figure K). As many as five wing-pointer feathers have been used to make a single spike. Not all spikes were held permanently to the base. Many were attached to laces which could be drawn into position when the bustle was worn (Figrue I), or loosened for storage and transportation (Figure J).

Decoration of the spikes was rather standard. A loose, but full, group of stripped feathers is found at the bottom of the spike standing vertically and surrounding the spike. This group of feathers, or stockade, may be composed of up to three layers of dyed, stripped, owl and/or hawk feathers. The stockade is often wrapped tightly above the primary lacing, and may be set just inside the base for added stability (Figure L). Decoration along the shafts of the spikes is accomplished through quill wrapped rawhide strips, braids of sweetgrass, and strings of hawk bells. A few bustles used narrow wood slats wrapped with thread in place of quillwork. The tips of the spikes may have a collar of ermine, quill wrapped thong, beading, or cloth; loose hanging items such as ribbons, hair, fluffs, feathers, etc., may also hang from the tips. Some items that may hang from the bottom to the spikes are feathers, sweetgrass braids, fluffs, or even trailers.


Made of either blue or red stroud material, trailers were often backed and/or edge bound with cotton print cloth, sacking, muslin, or strouding. The trailers were usually in pairs and attached at a wide variety of points; the base, the belt, or the spikes.

A small stick was often sewn into the top hem of each trailer to give it an even hang. Very seldom was one stick used to hang both trailers. The trailers were covered with wing feathers. The feathers were almost always neatly and evenly placed on the cloth. Four rows of three feathers was the most common arrangement. The feathers may be attached by the self looping technique (Figure S-l). with no decoration or they were "fully dressed" in the manner of a bonnet feather with the fire-cracker wrapped base and fluffs at the base and tip. Quilled strips along the shafts were occasionally used. The common adhesive to attach hair and fluffs to the end of feathers was a gypsum paste.

A four inch wide trailer was the most popular with a range from 2.5" to 8.5". Trailer length ranged from 24" to 34". Im addition to the regular rows of feathers a limited number of "special" items might be found. A red feather or a bell might denote a battle wound or other charms might be found. These were not common, however, and there was seldom a cluttered appearance to the trailers. Feathers were attached by the techniques shown in Figure S-l,2,3,4.

(LEFT) Plains style bustle with leather belt. Feathers in the bustle cluster are decorated with red fluffs. Denver Art Museum. J. Heriard photo. (RIGHT) Plateau style bustle with a one piece trailer and feather cluster at the top. 'TWo upright spikes are attached to a folded base. This bustle is housed in the Community Center Museum, Wellpinit, WA.


Belts were not always present on the specimens examined, but certainly were necessary to hold this style bustle to the dancer. Strips of muslin, net sashes, a wool neck scarf, and a commercial belt covered with red stroud were among some of the belts still attached. No doubt decorative sashes and belts could have covered the less fancy ties. It is possible that many of the original belts may have been kept by the original owner, or may have been removed to be stored in another collection area.


It is quite common for a person reconstructing a bustle of this style to overlook or omit the tail unit. The tail was present on 75% of the bustles examined. The tail was often composed of five tail feathers set into tapering, folded piece of rawhide. Other feathers were also used (one tail unit held nine hawk tail feathers). An average tail foundation may measure three inches at the folded end holding the feathers, two inches at the open end, and 3.5 inches long. A single qui11 wraped rawhide slat usually decorated the shaft of the center feather (Figure P).


Usually when speaking of a bustle the person thinks of a large cluster of feathers. The examples used in this study contained wheels only half the time. Many without wheels showed they had been constructed to hold wheels but this feature may have again been kept by a previous owner or disposed of in some other manner. The wheel is composed a a "hub", a given number of feather circles, a thong to hold the unit together, and occasionally a "washer" or back-up cup (Figure Q).

The radius of the wheel ranged from 7" to 11". Decorating techniques included partially stripping the vane from the shaft to give a fluttering effect, splitting the shaft (among the Crow the shaft would often be split lengthwise and the inside of the shaft would be colored, or whitened if the vane had been dyed), dying the entire feather, attaching colored fluffs, hair, gypsum, and using decorative hubs. The practice of looping the quill end into itself (Figure S-l) was used almost exclusively to prepare the quill for the primary lace. A secondary lacing, or bridle, along the middle of the shaft (Figure S-8) was seldom used. This, along with the practice of removing the bared quill from a partly stripped feather, gave a very full and free effect to the wheel. This helped to give this style the name "mess bustle". To give still additional fullness, pieces of stripped vanes can be added to the existing quills.

A concave effect is often achieved by setting the feathers into the wheel with the underside out. The number of layers may vary from four to perhaps over a dozen. By 1930 many of the bustles among South Dakota dancers featured rather flattened wheels composed of several layers of colored feathers positioned to present a pattern as opposed to the earlier full and fluttering feather styles. Many trailers were found to the side of the dancer as noted in Figure N-1.

Wheels may be attached either with or without a washer. In the latter case the wheel may be tied directly to the base which will act as the washer. In one case, collected from the Crow in 1901, the "wheel" was composed of several collapsed feather circles tied individually to horizontal thongs attached to the base. The resulting effect was a very full "mess" wheel. This technique (Figure R) is one still used widely among the Crow today.

Northern traditional "old Style" dancer wearing a "mess" bustle. Photo by Joe Kazumura

When the entire bustle is viewed it will assume the appearance of a Thunderbird - the outstretched belt becomes wings (feathers are often hung from the belt), the trailers become disproportionately large legs, and the base area may be cut or shaped to have a bird's head in profile extend above it. In conclusion, if you feel the need for a bustle, study the alternatives and possibilities carefully. If at all possible examine actual specimens and duplicate them faithfully. If you must omit certain materials it may be better to do without or to use an acceptable alternate. That is, if you do not have the appropriate feathers for the trailers; leave the trailers bare or do not include trailers. If you do not have stroud wool you may want to use canvas. Don't guess at what was used or substituted, find out!

In the early days, the Plains tribes were highly mobile, and even today it helps if you can easily "break down" without breaking up your prized bustle. After years of use, blatant poor storage conditions, and general wear and tear, many of the specimens examined look far better than several seen on contemporary dancers. Traditional and old-style bustles should not be abused either by design or inconsideration.


If you plan to wear a pheasant bustle, be sure to date your dance outfit as 1920 or later.

A Sioux pheasant bustle collected about 1920, apparently was a singular speciman. It should be noted that about this time some Sioux bustles began to use a single layer butterfly arrangement of various feathers around the wheel. There is an example stored in the Smithsonian using hawk wing feathers.

While a few pheasants were said to have been introduced as novalties from England in 1789 by George Washington, it was not until much later that the birds began to reach the West. In 1880 some birds were imported from China to Oregon. By 1892 there was an open season of ten weeks resulting in an estimated kill of 50,000 birds in Oregon.

South Dakota did not begin to receive pheasants until 1891. The following years saw several unsuccessful attempts to introduce flocks of birds that would sustain a hunting season. Not until the 1912-1915 period did the pheasant game bird population grow to a size that would popularize the bird outside the confines of a few farmers experimenting with this new colorful bird. By 1918 South Dakota was releasing 7,000 birds a year to open fields.

Pheasant feathers became popular in the 1950’s. Recent use of the chicken dance songs at powwows has again interested male dancers to feature this older style of bustle.

Pheasant/Chicken dance back bustle

Pheasant/Chicken dance arm bustle

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