Poor Dog, Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe, wearing a feathered war bonnet, 1898

American Indian headdresses are headpieces worn by First Nations peoples historically during battle and ceremony.  War bonnets have been and are portrayed as fashion accessories in Western media and are often depicted in one specific style, though there are different varieties worn by different tribes and for different purposes.  War bonnets are considered sacred in many tribes and are reserved for only those who have earned them through actions of bravery, honor, and courage.

  • Styles and Materials
    • Feather war bonnets
    • Roach headdresses
    • Otter fur turbans
    • Buffalo war bonnets
  • Cultural and Spiritual Significance
    • Feather war bonnets
    • Roach headdresses
    • Otter fur turbans
    • Buffalo war bonnets
  • Controversy
  • Other Resources

 

  1. Styles

     1.1 Feather War Bonnets

Feather war bonnets are those traditionally depicted in popular media.  Though possibly the best known type of headdress, this style of war bonnet was largely only worn by tribes in the Plains region of what is now the United States such as the Sioux and the Cheyenne .  Feather war bonnets were sometimes worn in battle, though those that trail the ground were largely reserved for ceremonies (1).  These war bonnets could be fashioned into a more rounded shape, fitting the wearer’s head, or in a more upright, crown-like shape with straight feathers.

         War bonnets are fashioned from a variety of materials and can be formed in several shapes.  The head strap is often constructed with leather, though sometimes cloth or sinew will be used.  Feathers adorning the war bonnet may be in different colors or a single color and is often dependent on the bird species common to the wearer’s area (2).  Golden Eagle feathers are reserved for specific use and are the most coveted.  Sometimes, a war bonnet may consist of colored beads, animal pelts, and skins.

         1.2 Roach headdresses

Roach headdresses or porcupine roaches, named for the process of “roaching” a horse’s mane,  were the most common headdresses across First Nations in the United States (1, 3).  Worn by tribes east of the Rocky Mountains such as the Sauks in the Great Lakes, and the better-known Mohawk tribe in the northeastern United States and Canada, these headdresses resemble a mohawk, with straight, stiff hairs sticking up in a line from the forehead to the back of the neck (3).  Roach headdresses were more commonly worn in battle than the feather war bonnets more commonly seen across popular culture.

Roach headdresses were traditionally constructed of stiff animal hair, such as moose, white-tail deer, and porcupine (3).  These headdresses sometimes consisted of feathers that were dyed red, seashells, beads, and other adornments.  Some roach headdresses were attached to a leather or bone base, while others were attached to the wearer’s own hair, styled into a scalplock.

A roach headdress

         1.3 Otter Fur Turbans

Otter fur turbans are another type of headdress, typically worn by Southeastern plains tribes, such as the Osage tribe.  They are hats that are round, shaping and covering the head of its wearer.

Otter fur turbans are constructed from otter fur and adorned with ornate bead work, with the otter tail trailing from the side or back of the hat.  These hats also included feathers in their design.  Otter fur turbans were not worn in battle, instead reserved for ceremonial use.

         1.4 Buffalo Horn Bonnets

Buffalo horn war bonnets were also limited to Plains tribes and are not as commonly known as the feathered war bonnets.

Buffalo horned bonnets were made from thick buffalo fur, adorned with feathers, and polished buffalo horns.  Sometimes, they included a trail of feathers that cascaded down its wearers back to the ground.  Buffalo horned bonnets often included the pelts of ermines, horsehair, and sometimes turtles, beads, and seashell adornments.  The feathers were typically owl, hawk, or eagle feathers.

  1. Cultural and Spiritual Significance

First Nations headwear was not worn as a fashion statement, rather each has cultural and spiritual significance.

2.1 Feathered War Bonnets

Feathered war bonnets were and are worn as a symbol of achievement by tribal warriors and chiefs only, signifying a warrior’s rank, accomplishments, and bravery and courage shown in battle (4).  Each feather featured in a war bonnet is representative of achievements of bravery and honor, with the Golden Eagle feathers commanding the most respect and representing the most courageous of actions.  As such, war bonnets are not fashioned in one sitting, but rather they are created over the life of the warrior or chief to tell a narrative (2).  Traditionally, only men donned the large war bonnets typically featured in Western portrayals of Native Americans in the media.  There were female chiefs and warriors, but their head pieces were much smaller (1).  Historically, war bonnets were sometimes worn into battle but now they are typically only worn for ceremonial and spiritual purposes.  War bonnets alone are not part of the warrior or chief’s ensemble.  They are typically worn with a breast plate, leggings with stripes representing each a different narrative, and a warrior shirt.

2.2 Roach Headdresses

Roach headdresses wear varied amongst different tribes.  In some, they were reserved for battle and only worn by male warriors.  They were often worn with face paint to intimidate enemies in battle, though in other tribes they were often used at sporting events and dance ceremonies such as powwows (3).  This style of headdress was generally not as significant as a feathered headdress.  In some tribes, however, a boy earned the right to wear a roach headdress.  Today, roach headdresses are still worn at powwows by male dancers.

2.3 Otter Fur Turbans

Otter fur turbans, like feather war bonnets, were and are of great significance to the tribes that wear them.  They are not worn in battle, only ceremonies such as weddings and other spiritual gatherings.  The color of the otter fur can be significant, for example, dark otter fur is representative of the otter and its connection with what is called a Medicine Dance (5).  A variation of turban used in nations that used a turban style dress was the fox fur turban, reserved for experienced warriors, while the otter fur turban was worn only by chiefs.  Fox fur turbans were traditionally unembellished compared with the chief’s turbans, which were decorated with ornate bead work and feathers.  Otter fur turbans are still worn in powwows and other ceremonies today.

2.4 Buffalo Horn Bonnets

Buffalo horn war bonnets, like feather war bonnets, are sacred and significant to tribes who use them.  They are far more rare than feathered war bonnets and reserved for only the most respected and deserving warriors and chiefs.  The feathers included in buffalo horn headdresses were sometimes significant.  Vision helpers often used the owl or hawk feathers (6).  The aforementioned turtle shells included in these pieces often contained the umbilical cord cut from its wearer at birth.  A medicine man’s buffalo horn bonnet may include ermine skins or bobcat fur.  Like feathered war bonnets, the buffalo horn bonnets told a story of its wearer’s life.

Chief Wetsit, Assiniboine tribe, wearing a buffalo horn style war bonnet, 1898

Hubble Big Horse, Cheyenne tribe, wearing a straight-up feather war bonnet, 1898

  1. Controversy

         In recent years, the internet has witnessed an explosion of controversy surrounding the appropriation of American Indian headwear, especially feathered war bonnets.  Young white women have been exposed on social media for wearing feathered war bonnets at music and art festivals such as Coachella (7).  War bonnets are also seen being worn by non-Natives during Halloween (8).  Those who suggest that the use of American Indian head pieces by non-Natives is controversial argue that these pieces are considered sacred and reserved for those who have earned the right to wear them.  The wearing and selling of these pieces by non-Natives is called “cultural appropriation” defined as “the borrowing from someone else’s culture without their permission and without acknowledgement to the victim culture’s past” (9).  The response from American Indians has often been outrage, as the perception is that non-Natives who wear these pieces are being insensitive and perpetuating prejudice and insensitivity towards American Indians and their culture.

  1. Suggested Further Resources

 

 

References

[1] Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting American Indian Languages. 2016.  Retrieved February 11, 2018 (http://www.native-languages.org/headdresses.htm).

[2] American Indian Heritage Foundation.  2017.  “Native American Headdress.”  Retrieved February 11, 2018 (http://indians.org/articles/native-american-headdress.html).

[3]  Alchin, Linda.  2017.  “Roach Headdress.”  Retrieved February 12, 2018 (https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-clothing/roach-headdress.htm).

[4]  Kilroy-Ewbank, Lauren.  2018.  “Feathered War Bonnet.”  Retrieved February 11, 2018 (https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-americas/native-north-america/native-american-west/a/feathered-war-bonnet).

[5]  Holmes, Jonathan.  2016.  “Fur Turban of Southern Plains.”  Retrieved February 12, 2018 (http://www.powwows.com/fur-turban/).

[6] Native American History.  2015.  “Headdresses Plains Indians.”  Retrieved February 12, 2018 (http://www.snowwowl.com/histplainsindianheaddress2.html).

[7] Chattopadhyay, Piva.  2017.  “How Wearing a Headdress to Coachella Ignited a Debate About the Line Between Shaming and Educating.”  Retrieved February 20, 2018 (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/outintheopen/public-shaming-1.4132574/how-wearing-a-headdress-to-coachella-ignited-a-debate-about-the-line-between-shaming-and-educating-1.4132578).

[8] Dastagir, Alia E. 2017.  “Is it Okay for a White Kid to Dress Up as Moana for Halloween? And Other Cultural Appropriation Questions,” USA Today, October 23, Retrieved February 20, 2018 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/10/23/halloween-cultural-appropriation-questions/780479001/)

[9] Wood, Marisa.  2017.  “Cultural Appropriation and the Plains’ Indian Headdress.”  VCU’s Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creativity.  Retrieved February 21, 2018 (https://scholarscompass.vcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=auctus).

 


Rebecca Morales is currently pursuing her M.A. in Applied Sociology at Old Dominion University, as well as a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies.  She received her B.S. from ODU with a major in Sociology and a minor in Women’s Studies.  Her academic interests include race, class, and gender, but she is especially interested in the ways in which American Indians and their various cultures are constructed, portrayed, and appropriated in the U.S., as well as the impacts of gender based violence on tribal communities.