Headdresses & Warbonnets
The American Indian headdress has a cultural and deeply spiritual significance among Native Americans. It honors acts of bravery and rites of passage that are longheld traditions. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), in New York, has an ongoing exhibit that examines various American Indian headdress designs, meanings, and the people who wear them.
The most widely recognized headdress by the general public is the eagle-feathered war bonnet. These handmade bonnets are worn primarily by tribes living on the Great Plains. For centuries, the tail feathers had been plucked from older eagles that had been captured from their nests when they were young. The feathers had to be removed without harming the birds. After bald and golden eagles were listed as protected species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set up the National Eagle Repository in the early 1970s near Denver, Colorado, so that federally registered Native American tribes would be provided with feathers for ceremonial use. Dennis Zotigh, cultural specialist at the Washington, D.C. Smithsonian’s NMAI, said:
THE FEATHERED WAR BONNET IS A “SYMBOL OF LEADERSHIP.” EACH FEATHER HAS TO BE EARNED. THE HEADDRESS IS ONLY WORN FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS. HE ALSO COMPARED THE WEARING OF A WAR BONNET BY SOMEONE WHO DID NOT EARN IT TO SOMEONE “WEARING A PURPLE HEART OR MEDAL OF HONOR WHO DID NOT EARN IT.”
Each tribe and indigenous nation has its own style of headdress and represents an extension of the wearer’s beliefs. The qualities of the bird or animal used in making it are acquired by the wearer. A headdress made from eagle feathers is believed to protect the wearer with the eagle’s wisdom and power.
The museum exhibit, Infinity of Nations, at the NMAI in New York, examines American Indian headdresses and their meanings from various tribes throughout North, Central and South America.
Another example included in the exhibit is from the Assiniboine people who lived on the Great Plains in Montana, North Dakota, and part of Canada. Today, they live primarily in the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, as well as the states of Montana and North Dakota. The Assiniboine antelope horn headdress would be worn by a respected man of the tribe and featured antelope horns from the Great Plains. Sometimes, buffalo horns or deer antlers were used. In addition to horns or antlers, deer hide, porcupine quills, horsehair, feathers, beadwork, and bells could also be part of the headdress.
A turban headdress example in the museum exhibit is from the Miccosukee and Seminole people. Many of the Seminole Indians were forced to move from Florida to reservations in Oklahoma during the mid- 1800s. However, some remained in Florida and share several cultural traditions with the Miccosukee tribe. During religious and cultural ceremonies, male elders and leaders often wear a cotton turban with a silver band around it and ostrich feathers.
It is a little known fact that Native American headdresses were not made completely in one sitting. Each time the chief, warrior, or other important tribe member committed a brave act, a feather was added. Therefore, the more feathers in the headdress, the braver and sometimes much more ominous the wearer was. In certain tribes, the brave act itself was not enough. The warrior would have to prove himself by fasting for several days and meditating the entire time to show his steadfastness. Women did not participate in making the Native American headdress. Only the men would help to make them, and this was often made by the chief or warrior’s closest friends and allies. Of all the feathers, the Golden Eagle feather was the most coveted and the most significant. If someone had one of these in their headdress, they received a great deal of reverence and respect from other members of the tribe.
Many people find the headdresses/warbonnets to be beautiful works of art.