The stereotypical image of the American Indian is of an imposing native man wearing a feathered headdress or warbonnet. This is how all Native Americans have long been depicted in movies, television, and non-native artworks, and the idea that all, or even most, American Indians wore these warbonnets, is inaccurate.
Contrary to popular belief, the full-feathered warbonnet headdress was not worn at all by most tribes, though it was authentic to a few. There are several types of headgear that were traditionally worn by numerous tribal nations.
Almost every tribal nation in North America wore some form of headdress. The purpose of this headgear was manifold:
- To intimidate the enemy during battle
- For ceremonial purposes
- For protection from the elements.
- To depict status within the Tribe
The type of headdress worn by different tribes depended on the individual tribes’ customs and beliefs as well as the readily available materials. For almost all types of headdress, they were sacred to their tribe and today they should never be appropriated by non-Native Americans. (Headbands, however, do not have the same sacred meanings and cultural traditions as other headdresses).
By far, the most common headdress worn by North American Native Americans was the roach headdress. This was made from stiff porcupine hair, deer tail hair, turkey beard hair, or moose hair, with dyed feathers attached to leather or bone base to stand up in a crest-like shape. It could be embellished with shells, feathers, or other ornaments. It was favored by tribes including the Pawnee, Mohawk, Mohican, Osage, Pequot, Fox, Huron, and Sauk Indians and worn by both warriors and dancers. Roaches could be worn into battle and it was a milestone for a boy to earn the right to wear a roach.
The warbonnet is particular to and sacred for the Great Plains Indians, including the Sioux and Cheyenne. It was only adopted by other tribes in the late 1800s to appeal to tourists, who expected American Indians to wear this type of headdress.
Warbonnets were exclusively worn by men, usually chiefs and warriors. They symbolized authority and power and were reserved for only the most highly respected of men. Even when women in these tribes were warriors or chiefs, they did not wear the warbonnet.
When a man had earned enough eagle feathers, he could make and wear a warbonnet. Use was predominantly ceremonial, as they were uncomfortable and cumbersome to wear in battle. They were made with feathers, often intricately interwoven and decorated with items like ermine skins and beads. Golden Eagle feathers were often used, and the warbonnet carried a lot of symbolism and status for the wearer. Feathers were given for acts of courage or worn by chiefs and medicine men; the more feathers a bonnet contained, the more accomplished its wearer was.
Warbonnets could be of various types:
- Halo Warbonnets – the feathers circled the wearer’s face.
- Trailer Warbonnets – rows of feathers extended down the wearer’s back. Worn by the Crow Plains Cree, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot.
- Straight-up Warbonnets – tall, narrow, and with feathers stuck upright.
White eagle feathers with brown tips were from younger eagles and represented strength. Brown feathers, representing wisdom, came from older eagles. Warbonnets also had side feathers from Red-tailed Hawks or Kestrels.
Another stereotypical Hollywood image is that of the Native American women wearing a headband with a single feather, often with her hair in two braids. This style was mostly worn by men and women of northeast Woodland tribes as a purely decorative accessory. The headband was made of finger-woven deerskin strips and decorated with tribal designs, beads, wampum, or quillwork. A single feather from an eagle, hawk, egret, or crane was inserted at the back of the head.
This rare headdress was worn only by a few northern Plain tribes, including the Sioux. It was worn only by particular clans and warriors who were notable for outstanding feats, and was made from bull horns, buffalo fur, feathers, and extended to the ankles.
Otter Fur Turbans
Fur turbans were worn by some tribes of the southern Plains and the Prairies, including the Pawnee, Osage, and Potawatomi. Worn for ritual purposes, they were made from otter fur and had the otter tail hanging from a beaded sheath. Chiefs and their family members could attach eagle feathers at the back for ceremonies.
Men and women from tribes in the Pacific Northwest, including the Salish and Haida, wore woven basket caps. This was the most common headwear seen west o the Rocky Mountains. They were crafted from spruce roots or cedar bark which was coiled tightly into a cap, cone, or brimmed shape. These hats conveyed the wearer’s clan, status, and achievements.
Specific to men of the Iroquois Nation, this feathered skullcap featured, pheasant, turkey or hawk feathers, as well as eagle feathers which were placed on top according to the individual’s tribe:
- Mohawk – three top feathers standing upright
- Seneca – a single feather standing upright
- Cayuga – one back-tilted feather
- Oneida – three top feathers, two sitting upright and one down.
- Onondaga – two upright feathers.
- Tuscarora – no feathers on top.
As woven cloth became more readily available, it was used more as headwear. The men of the southeast (Seminole, Cherokee, etc) wore cloth turbans which they decorated with feathers, while the male Pueblo Indians, Navajo, and Apache often chose to wear cloth headbands.
In the future, we will look at Native American headdresses worn by women…
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