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Surviving examples of warbonnets worn by respected American Plains Indians

Neil Patrick

Feathered war bonnets are worn by men of the American Plains Indians who have earned a place of great respect in their tribe. Originally they were sometimes worn into battle, but they are now primarily used for ceremonial occasions.

Native American tribes consider the presentation of an eagle feather to be one of their highest marks of respect. Any honored person must have earned their feather through selfless acts of courage and honour, or been gifted them in gratitude for their work or service to their tribe.

Traditional deeds that brought honour would include acts of valor in battle, but also political and diplomatic gains or acts that helped their community survive and prosper. The esteem attached to eagle feathers was so high that in many cases, such as a warrior (e.g. Dog Soldiers of the Cheyenne), only two or three honour feathers might be awarded in their whole lifetime. Historically, the warrior who was the first to touch an enemy in battle and escape unscathed received an eagle feather.

When enough feathers were collected, they might be incorporated into a headdress or some other form of worn regalia. Headdresses were usually reserved exclusively for the tribe’s chosen political and spiritual leaders.

 

 

 Detail of Plains headdress. Source

Detail of Plains headdress. Source

 

 Exhibit in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany.Exhibit in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany.Source

Exhibit in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany.Exhibit in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany.Source

Plains Indians normally use eagle feathers as the most significant part of the bonnet to represent honor and respect. Some Plains-style bonnet forms are the “horned” bonnet, “flaring” eagle feather bonnet, and the “fluttering feather” bonnet.

The “horned” bonnet can consist of a buckskin skull cap, shaved bison or cow horns, and dyed horsehair with bunches of owl feathers beneath the skull cap. The “flaring” eagle feather bonnet is often made of golden eagle tail feathers connected to a buckskin or felt crown. There are slits at the base of the crown that allow the bonnet to have a “flaring” look.

An unusual form of bonnet that is no longer used would be the “fluttering feather” bonnet. This can have golden eagle, hawk, and owl feathers loosely attached to a felt or buckskin cap to make it hang at the sides.

 Feather headdress; Crow, c. 1880; North America department, Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany (Harvey collection, 1905) Source

Feather headdress; Crow, c. 1880; North America department, Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany (Harvey collection, 1905) Source

 

 In the collection of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis Source

In the collection of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis Source

 

 Muscogee war bonnet Source

Muscogee war bonnet Source

 

 National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum ( Oklahoma City ). Cree trailer headdress ( ca. 1940 ), made of red wool cloth, ribbon, eagle feathers, plume feathers, glass beats, raw hide and felt head. Source

National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum ( Oklahoma City ). Cree trailer headdress ( ca. 1940 ), made of red wool cloth, ribbon, eagle feathers, plume feathers, glass beats, raw hide and felt head. Source

 

War Bonnet and Trailer The headdress was a sign of leadership and honor and was often passed down from generation to generation. The headdress and trailer was probably made locally. The headdress itself is built around a tan felt cap with twenty-five feathers. The head band is beaded with small bells and ermine tails attached to it. The trailer has twenty-six eagle feathers attached to a trailer of red trade cloth. One of the designs on the trailer is of a whirlwind, which Euro-American?s often call a swastika. This is an ancient symbol that appears in artwork around the world. Wool, eagle feathers, brass. L 154 , W 22.3 cm Nez Perce National Historical Park, Source

War Bonnet and Trailer Source

Roman Nose, who was one of the most influential Cheyenne warriors of the Plain Indian Wars of the 1860s, was known for his illustrious warbonnet that was said to protect him during battle. Several instances record how while wearing his war bonnet, he rode back and forth before soldiers of the United States Army and, despite being fired upon, was left unscathed.

Due to their historical importance and status, many Native Americans now consider the wearing of headdresses without the express permission of tribal leaders to be an affront to their culture and traditions.