Even since I saw the movie “Dances with Wolves,” I wanted a breast plate vest. Indians in the movie, presented Kevin Koster with a breast plate as a symbol of trust and friendship. They knew he was on their side as military troops ambushed that killed them at the frontier moved westward.
I’ve seen many pictures of Indians wearing breast plates in books and movies. They are cultural icons of form and function. The bone pieces come from buffalo. The bones were rasped into tubes slightly tapered at each end. They were hollow and strung together to form a protection against arrows like today’s bullet proof vests.
It was a sign of bravery, protection and pride. I saw one in the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut.
I wanted a breast plate for another reason. I strongly admire Indigenous wisdom, craftsmanship, and life style. I shudder when I think of how our First People have been treated over centuries after contact. I wanted some sort of close connection with their spirituality. I am in awe of their resourcefulness, their survival instincts, and their community ethic within their small groups and as sovereign nations.
One thanksgiving dinner, I found something that led to the rest of this story. I selected a wing from the turkey. I found two bones that looked like those I’ve seen in breastplates. I saved these bones, cleaned them up and decided to collect them.
They are light, long, hollow. I visualized how I could make my own breastplate. I soaked the bones in a mild Clorox solution, cleaned and bleached them in sunlight.
It took five years to save enough wing bones. I asked friends for their turkey carcasses to make turkey soup using a crock pot. One day I rediscovered my bone stash; I counted a hundred and drew a diagram of the project. I lined the bones up in three columns from small on top to large on the bottom. Next, I bought a leather belt at a thrift shop and sut it into four strips long enough to attach all the bones. I used a blow torch to burn holes down the length of the leather strips so I could sew the bones together horizontally. The leather strips would serve as a framework to hold all the bones in place.
I used wax coated linen thread to sew back and forth: leather – bone- leather-bone-leather-bone-leather. Once this was done, the whole thing became one piece – a breast plate. I wanted a medallion at the top center. I asked a friend Tony for help.
Tony is an amateur silversmith. He agreed to create the medallion. I wanted a maze pattern that I saw one design an Indian tribe in southern Arizona called the Zuni. They make some of the best coil baskets in the world. One such basket had a maze pattern. Tony used this to cut silver plate. I wanted a human being at the top of the maze. This was my take on the plight of humans as they
Tony welded the maze and human cutout onto a silver base. I attached this to the breast plate, and braided a strap to fit around my neck to hold the breast plate in place.
The first time I wore this breast plate, a wash of satisfaction filled me. The project took a long time, and as a person with manic behavior, it was a big accomplishment. I don’t often wear it because it looks like I’m trying to attract attention. However, I do wear it for solstice and equinox celebrations and sweat lodge ceremonies. this project was the journey, not the destination.