More than an accessory (way more)
Today it might be fairly common to see feathered headdresses worn at outdoor music festivals as an attractive or visually powerful accessory. However, feathered headdress replicas in this context misuse important cultural and spiritual objects of the Native tribes of the Great Plains. These objects have become so popular in our contemporary cultural imagination (like in many Western movies) that we often assume that the feathered headdress was a prevalent item of Plains dress (and all First Nations and Indigenous groups)—especially as they were envisioned by nineteenth-century Euro-American artists such as Karl Bodmer or George Catlin.
Catlin’s Máh-to-tóh-pa (”Four Bears,” painted 1832), for instance, shows the Mandan chief standing in a war shirt with leggings and festooned with a feathered headdress that frames his head and extends down the length of his back.¹ Works like this one were often sent around North America to introduce unfamiliar people to Native peoples of the Great Plains, causing many to assume that such headdresses were commonplace items.
However, feathered headdresses, or more correctly, eagle-feather war bonnets, were and are objects of great significance for peoples of the Plains tribes. As described in a White River Sioux story about Chief Roman Nose, “He had the fierce, proud face of a hawk, and his deeds were legendary. He always rode into battle with a long warbonnet trailing behind him. It was thick with eagle feathers, and each stood for a brave deed, a coup counted on the enemy.”¹
A male warrior had to earn the privilege of wearing a war bonnet, like the Cheyenne or Sioux war bonnet in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection (left). This item of adornment, along with the warrior’s clothing, communicated his rank in a given warrior society. Someone could not just decide to wear one–it was decidedly not a fashion accessory. In fact, to acquire a war bonnet a warrior had to display great bravery in battle. On those occasions that a warrior accomplished great deeds or battle coups, he received an eagle feather. For this reason, feathers also recalled specific moments in time. When worn into battle, a warrior could not surrender his war bonnet, and so it acquired associations with bravery and valiancy. Warriors who had elaborate bonnets clearly possessed these desirable qualities in great quantities.
Only important chiefs and warriors could don a war bonnet, and they were typically worn during ceremonies; certain types of war bonnets would have been difficult to wear into battle, especially those that trailed down the length of the back. Regardless of when they were worn, imagine a warrior on horseback wearing a war bonnet: he would seem to be moving, as if he were a bird in flight—a striking and intimidating appearance. War bonnet feathers could take several different forms, they might stand straight-up, create a halo around the face, or trail down the back.
From the front, the Brooklyn Museum’s war bonnet fanned outwards and framed an individual’s head, almost like the rays of the sun. Eagle feathers—actually the tail feathers of golden eagles—rise upwards and outwards from a hide band decorated with colored glass beads. The beads, common on many mid-to late nineteenth-century war bonnets, were acquired from European and Euro-American traders, often replacing quillwork decoration (decorative element made with porcupine quills). Colorful and easy to manipulate, glass beads were used to create intricate decorative patterns on a variety of objects, including clothes. The Brooklyn Museum’s war bonnet shows a stepped-fret pattern that alternates between red and blue, with all the forms picked out by a thick contour line. These bead colors paired with the white and grey eagle feathers, yellow-dyed horse hair, and tiny red-pink downy tufts create a beautiful, colorful object, one that is also remarkable for the different textures presented to the eye. The materials of this object betray its date of creation in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Earlier war bonnets did not have the pink fluff, but would have had only horsehair at the tips.
This particular war bonnet was clearly for someone of great importance. This is evident because of the numerous feathers in the bonnet itself and because of the feathers that run down the length of the body. Women did not traditionally wear war bonnets, although occasionally after battle, when their male family members—say their husbands—returned, they might don the war bonnet while dancing to celebrate.
It is important not to think of the feathered war bonnet alone or as the only dress item that demonstrated a warrior’s status and accomplishments. A warrior would also be wearing a war shirt, breastplate, and leggings to complete his outfit. Similar to the way in which a feather was earned for brave deeds, the stripes on a warrior’s leggings could designate specific exploits. War shirts also communicated a warrior’s status because locks of hair (horse or human) could be attached to a shirt to showcase accomplishments such as combat or capturing horses. Designs on war shirts, too, could note such accomplishments.
Besides dress, other objects related triumphs in battle including narrative tipi liners (hides used to decorate the interior of a tipi, also teepee) or buffalo-hide robes. While the tipi itself would be fashioned by women, tipi liners with narrative scenes were created by men. These autobiographical and historical narrative scenes often depicted battle scenes that commemorated brave deeds in battle.
A muslin tipi liner in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection (above, and detail below), created during the early Reservation period (1880–1920) shows the battle exploits of the Lakota warrior Rain-In The-Face (Ité Omágaˇzu, who lived on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota) at a time when life for many people living on the Great Plains had been violently disrupted by Euro-American soldiers. Native peoples had been forcibly removed from their homes and lands and placed on reservations, and so their previous ways of life were in a moment of crisis and transition. As a result, prior deeds and acts of battle coups became important to remember as a source of cultural, historical, and ceremonial pride. Rain-In-The-Face’s tipi liner draws on earlier traditions commemorating a warrior’s battle exploits—in this case his own—but does so in a new medium (muslin, crayon and pencil rather than painted hide) and in a new context—living on the reservation. In some scenes on the liner, Rain-In-The-Face is shown on horseback, holding weapons and a shield and riding in battle.
Today people do not earn war bonnets from great battle accomplishments, but by helping a given community in some way. A war bonnet might also commemorate one’s deeds in the U.S. military, a different way to remember one’s strength and courage (versus the battles of the nineteenth century and earlier).
The war bonnet in popular culture
While the feathered headdress is common at many outdoor music festivals and makes a regular appearance in many popular culture films, images, and objects, there have been sustained attempts by many Native groups to end this appropriation for the problematic stereotypes and misunderstanding it conveys. In particular, the misconception that all Native American peoples wore and still wear feathered headdresses, rather than the male warriors and chiefs of the Great Plains who earned the right to wear them. The war bonnet as a contemporary fashion accessory perpetuates a lack of understanding of the postcolonial fate of Native groups across North America.
1. “Chief Roman Nose Loses His Medicine,” in American Indian Myths and Legends, edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 256.
The war bonnet in the Brooklyn Museum
The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas (for more on George Catlin)
The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky
Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Plains Indian Museum
Blog post from Native Appropriations, “But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?”
Max Carocci, Ritual and Honour: Warriors of the North American Plains (London: British Museum Press, 2011).
Janet Catherine Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips, Native North American Art, 2 ed. Oxford History of Art series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
David W. Penny, North American Indian Art, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004).
Nancy Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller, eds. Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains (University of Washington Press, 2010).
Gaylord Torrence, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky (Skira, 2014).