Feather and Fur
Edited by Roy Cook
bonnets (or war bonnets) are the impressive feather headdresses commonly
seen in Western movies and TV shows. Although war bonnets are the best-known
type of Indian headdress today, they were actually only worn by a dozen
or so Indian tribes in the Great Plains region, such as the Sioux, Crow,
Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Plains Cree. In the photograph at left, you can
see a Sioux women warrior, Minnie Hollow wood and her husband. In the
first photograph below, the man with the blanket, is wearing a feather
war bonnet (headdresses with single or double rows of eagle feathers descending
in a long 'tail' all the way to the ground).
In the second photo,
modern Crow elders attend a formal naming event of the President of the
United States, Barrack Obama, in halo warbonnets (headdresses with eagle
feathers fanned out around the face in an oval shape). The third photograph
shows a Blackfoot man wearing a straight-up feather headdress (taller,
narrower headdresses where the eagle feathers stand up straight.) All
three types of warbonnets were made from the tail feathers of the golden
eagle, and each feather had to be earned by an act of bravery. Sometimes
a feather might be painted with red dye to commemorate a particular deed.
Besides the feathers, Plains Indian warbonnets were often decorated with
ermine skins and fancy beadwork.
Halo warbonnets Straight-up
Warbonnets were important
ceremonial regalia worn only by chiefs and warriors. Also, only men wore
warbonnets. (Women sometimes went to war in some Plains Indian tribes,
and there were even some female chiefs, but they never wore these masculine
headdresses.) Plains Indian men occasionally wore warbonnet headdresses
while they were fighting, but more often they wore roach headdresses into
battle (see below) and saved their war bonnets for formal occasions. In
particular, long feather trailers were never worn on the battlefield.
It would be impossible to fight while wearing them!
In the 1800's, Native
American men from other tribes sometimes began to wear Plains-style war
bonnets. Partially this was because of the American tourist industry,
which expected Native Americans to look a certain way. Partially it was
because many Native American tribes were forced to move to Oklahoma and
other Indian territories during this time in history, so tribes that used
to live far apart began adopting customs from their new neighbors. In
most cases, the feather war bonnet did not have the same significance
among the new tribes that adopted it. For them, it was a matter of fashion
or a general symbol of authority. But for the Plains Indian tribes, feather
war bonnets were a sacred display of a man's honor and courage, and each
feather told a story. Eagle feathers are still sometimes awarded to Plains
Indians who serve in the military or do other brave deeds today.
Feather war bonnets
are better-known to popular culture, but roach headdresses (also called
porcupine roaches or artificial roaches) were the most widely used kind
of Indian headdress in the United States. Most Native American tribes
east of the Rocky Mountains were familiar with some form of roach headdress.
These headdresses are made of stiff animal hair, especially porcupine
guard hair, moose hair, and deer's tail hair. This hair was attached to
a bone hair ornament or leather base so that it stood straight up from
the head like a tuft or crest. Often the hair was dyed bright colors and
feathers, shells, or other decorations were attached. In some tribes,
men wore their hair in a scalplock or crested roach style (frequently
given the name Mohawk or Mohican after two tribes in which roached hair
was common), and the artificial roach was attached to the man's own hair.
The Caddo man in the first picture is wearing his roach headdress this
way. In other tribes, porcupine roaches were attached to leather headbands
or thongs and worn over long hair or braids. This is how they are most
commonly worn today.
Caddo warrior's roach powwow
dancer's roach Indian roach for sale
were usually worn by warriors and dancers. Like warbonnets, the porcupine
hair roach is traditionally men's headwear, not worn even by female warriors.
Their use varied from tribe to tribe. In many tribes, roaches were worn
into battle, while more formal tribal headdresses (like warbonnets, otter-fur
turbans, or gustowah caps) were worn to ceremonial events. In other tribes,
roaches were worn primarily as dance regalia or sports costume. In some
tribes, individual men chose to wear porcupine roaches while other men
did not. Like other clothing styles, roaches sometimes went into and out
of fashion. They were not generally as spiritually meaningful as warbonnet
headdresses, though a boy earning the right to wear a roach for the first
time was an important ceremony in some tribes. Today, porcupine roaches
can be commonly seen at powwows, where they are still worn as regalia
by male dancers from many different tribes.
Basket hats (also
known as twined caps or basketry hats) were the most common type of Native
American headdress west of the Rocky Mountains. Different tribes made
basket hats in different shapes and styles. California Indian tribes usually
made small rounded or fez-shaped basket caps from tightly coiled sumac,
like the Hupa Indian hat below. Northwest Coast tribes like the Haida
and Salish often made larger hats in more conical or brimmed shapes from
fibers such as cedar bark or spruce root.
Haida basket hat
Nootka whaler's hat
In California and
the Plateau tribes, basket hats were normally worn only by women and girls,
and their designs were mostly decorative. On the Northwest Coast, both
men and women wore basketry headgear, for dance regalia and ceremonial
purposes as well as everyday life. Northwest Coast basket hat designs
often conveyed information about a person's clan, achievements, or status
within the tribe.
The Indian headband
is also well-known from movies and other popular images of Native Americans.
However, this style of headband was typically only used by a few tribes
of the northeast Woodlands. Usually the headband consisted of a finger-woven
or beaded deerskin strip with tribal designs on it. This band was then
tied around the brow with a feather or two tucked through the back. Not
only eagle feathers but turkey, hawk, egret, and crane feathers were also
used for Woodland Indian headbands.
Lenape Indian headbands
Unlike many of the
Native American headdresses on this page, both men and women wore headbands,
which were not associated with war. The number and type of feather did
not usually have special symbolic meaning, though in a few tribes that
bordered the Plains eagle feathers were reserved for warriors. For the
most part, Woodland Indian head bands were worn for their beauty, and
were often decorated with intricate patterns, wampum, beads, and quillwork.
Like feather warbonnets, buffalo horn headdresses were traditional regalia
of certain Plains Indian warriors. These were helmets of buffalo hide
with a pair of buffalo horns attached, frequently adorned with shaggy
buffalo fur and a buffalo tail trailing behind. In many cases ermineskins
and war feathers were hung from the headdress, as in the second picture.
Sometimes a horned headdress was even combined with a feather trail, as
in the third picture.
Sioux buffalo headdress Piegan horn headdress
The spiritual and
ceremonial importance of horned headdresses to the Plains Indians was
similar to that of feathered warbonnets. Only distinguished male warriors
wore this sacred kind of regalia. Horned headdresses were rarer than eagle-feather
warbonnets, because they were used by fewer tribes (only the Sioux and
a few other tribes of the northern Plains wore this kind of headdress)
and also because only warriors of certain clans or who had accomplished
specific deeds wore bison horns.
Otter Fur Turbans
(also known as otter-skin caps) are ceremonial headdresses worn by men
in certain Prairie and Southern Plains tribes, such as the Potawatomi,
Pawnee and Osage. These are round hats made of otter fur with the otter's
tail either hanging behind or jutting out to one side in a beaded sheath.
The turbans and tail sheaths were often elaborately decorated with beaded
and painted designs symbolizing the owner's war honors, and a chief and
his descendants usually attach eagle feathers to the back of their turbans.
Pawnee chief's turban
Otter turban Otter
cap with sheath
were formal head dresses with great symbolic importance. They were worn
at ceremonies or other solemn occasions, not by warriors entering battle
(who usually wore porcupine roaches.) Even today, otter-fur caps are sometimes
worn at formal events by Southern Plains Indian men.
and South American Headdresses
The Aztec and Highland
Maya Indians of Mexico were also famous for their feather headdresses,
but these headdresses looked very different from the Plains Indian warbonnets.
To make their headdresses, the Aztecs and Mayans sewed together a large
fan of feathers and then attached it to the back of their head with straps
and a headband or metal circlet. Another difference is that parrot, macaw,
and quetzal feathers were used instead of eagle feathers. This style of
headdress was not only popular in Mexico but also in Central America and
in parts of South America as far south as Brazil.
Montezuma's Aztec headdress
Both men and women
wore headdresses like these. They didn't have any connection to war, but
in the Aztec Empire, the fanciest ones (adorned with gold, jewels, and
jade stone) symbolized nobility. Today, feather-fan headdresses are worn
as regalia by Nahua, Mayan, and other native dancers in Mexico and Guatemala,
and colorful headdresses modelled on traditional Brazilian Indian ones
are worn as costumes for Mardi Gras Carnival in Rio de Janeiro every year.
Masks are another
kind of headgear used by many Native American tribes from Alaska to Argentina.
In most tribes, masks are used for religious rituals or festivals, but
there are nearly as many different American Indian mask-making traditions
as there are American Indian tribes. We have a separate page of Native
American masks that you may like to visit to learn more about the diversity
of tribal masks, but here are photographs of a few of the most common
types. Plains Indians typically crafted simple animal masks from the heads
or skulls of important animals such as the buffalo bull, bear or wolf.
Most tribes carved masks from wood and decorated them with leather and
fur, like the Hopi kachina dance mask below. In some of the northwestern
tribes, mask makers carved particularly complex hinged transformation
masks that opened when a cord was pulled to reveal a second face within
the first one. Metal masks were rare in North America but some South American
tribes, like the Inca tribe, created beautiful beaten gold and silver
masks. And in some eastern tribes like the Seneca and Tuscarora tribes,
making false face masks is considered such a sacred ritual that no one
is allowed to take photographs of them.
Mandan buffalo dance mask
Hopi kachina mask Haida
transformation mask Incan
Other Tribal Headdresses
Iroquois gustoweh cap
Hupa flicker headdress
Seminole cloth turban
The gustoweh cap
is a formal feathered skullcap used only by men from the Iroquois tribes.
The big eagle feathers on top of the cap were symbols that showed which
specific tribe an Iroquois man belonged to. (The three straight feathers
on the cap in this picture mean that the owner is Mohawk.) In some northern
California tribes, men wore flicker headdresses as dance regalia. These
headdresses are made of wide leather strips decorated with the red scalps
of woodpeckers. During the 1800's when cloth became more readily available,
cloth turbans decorated with feathers became stylish among Cherokee, Seminoles
and other southeastern Indian men, and cloth headbands became everyday
wear for men from the Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo tribes.
Other Tribal Headdresses
Cayuga beaded tiara Peaked
hood Wishram bridal headdress Eskimo dance headdress
Iroquois ladies often
wore a distinctive tiara style of beaded headband. This high crown-like
headdress is still used at formal events today. Wabanaki women in Maine
and New Brunswick sometimes wore peaked caps with a floral bead design.
In many Plateau tribes, brides wore elaborate beaded head coverings like
the Wishram woman above, crafted from dentalium shells, abalone, and other
precious materials. The Eskimo people (Inuit, Aleut, and Yupik) did not
normally wear headdresses, but women did use headbands with long fringes,
sometimes ringed with caribou fur like the one in this picture, as dance