I want to be a Native Re-enactor…so how do I start?

It’s pretty easy to go to a large event as a visitor, get interested, and buy a lot of stuff. You rarely find all you need for a portrayal, because many items have to be handmade specifically to fit you, and it’s hard to decide exactly what it is you should have bought.

First, before you spend any money, think about a few things:

Where am I? Locale is the first decision you should make, and one that will affect the remainder of your decisions. if you live in South Florida, it doesn’t make much sense to portray an Iroquois warrior at local events. You have to stretch the story too far. Think about where you’ll participate in events most often, and do some basic research on what the cultural groups in that area were or are, what history or historical events surround them.

When am I? Once you know where, and a little about the history of the area, you can select a time period. This will allow you to focus your research and make sure the items you buy or make fit the locale and time period. The events you will be able to participate in help define this. There probably aren’t many French and Indian era events in Alaska, so a period such as the Fur Trade era might be your choice.

What are my goals as a re-enactor? Decide on what sort of events you expect to participate in. If you expect to portray a Mvscogee woman in the 1750’s at “living history” day type events, a young warrior at battle reenactments, or spend most of your time hunting/trekking with a group such as the Coalition of Historical Trekkers (COHT), your choices of material goods will be different. For example, you would need to have some cooking gear and basic craft items to give a good demonstration in a permanent interpretive village, but won’t need a lot of cookware if you are traveling light on a war party (plus, battle reenactments tend to feed you some of your meals for free 🙂

What’s my story? Start to develop a persona. Think about the history of the person you would like to portray. It could be a historical figure (not easy to do), someone from your family tree (very interesting to research) or a somewhat generic “war chief” or “hunter” or “uncle” or “beloved woman” or whatever. Think about a simple life history, including age and background. Don’t get too hung up in details here, but think about what you would have to have to live a day in that person’s shoes in the situations you expect to be reenacting.

Once you have pretty good ideas about these questions, it’s time to do some in-depth research. Check the bibliography and links on this and other sites. Join one of the many mailing lists out there. Read their archives and ask questions, both about specific items or sutlers in general. Your local library may not have what you’re looking for, but would probably be glad to have you use their Interlibrary Loan Service (ILL). You need pretty good bibliographic information for the library to request a book–author’s name, full title, year published, and publisher are helpful, as is the “ISBN”, or international standard book number. You can find this info from the Library of Congress’ Web site: http://www.loc.gov/ , or from the bibliographies in other books.

Go to events, and talk to the folks there. Ask them for suggestions of places to find things–craftspeople, sutlers, even museums where material goods are displayed. Most living historians want to help new people get started out right.

Once you have your documentation together for your persona, you can start to shop or make items. Be very cautious when you make purchases, especially of high cost items. For example, it is very easy to spend a thousand dollars on a gun you won’t want to use at events because you find out it’s just not “PC” for your persona, locale, and time period. You might buy a beautiful hand woven Assumption sash, but if you’re not a French trader, you may have a hard time working out how that fits your persona. Starting simple is usually the best idea.

The cost of getting started in re-enacting really isn’t all that high. All it takes to participate in an event is the bare minimum of equipment. Pick a mild weather event, go for the day, wear basic clothing: shirt, moccasins, leggings/breechclout or wrap skirt. If it’s summer, you can go without the moccasins. Find a simple wooden bowl to eat and drink from, a wooden, silver, or pewter spoon, and you’re pretty much set for the day.

Before you decide on what you do want to buy or make, please follow these two rules of thumb:

Items should have three sources of documentation for your persona, time, and locale. That’s not as hard as it sounds, if you stick to the second rule. A sutler’s statement about something being documented doesn’t count, by the way.

Items should follow the “Plain, Everyday, and Common” standard. This is a standard for clothing, gear, and equipment that ignores the outrageous, the rare, the one-of-a-kind, the exception and strives for what is correct for the culture, location, time frame, socio-economic class, history, etc. of the individual. Wait ’til you have a basic kit to add things that need a lot of explaining. “I got this justacorps (French military coat) from a dead soldier after the battle at such-and-such” may explain why you are wearing it (sort of), but doesn’t address the commonality of the item. In my (sometimes) humble opinion, let the other person be “that guy”. Portraying a middle of the road, “plain, everyday, common” person gives a more realistic picture to the public or folks just starting out, so is more historically accurate by definition.

We have developed a set of basic instructions and gear lists for the Southern Indian Department that are available here.

Rebecca Jordan has written a good page that helps Northeastern Native reenactors get started. Much of the information is applicable to the Southeast as well. It is available via the Onaquaga War Party website. While you’re there, review the Equipment List, as it is a great reminder of things to put on your shopping list.

The next step is to continue your research. I hope this site helps.

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