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 long-held traditions. When headdresses are inappropriately worn or taken out of the context for which they were meant, that is disrespectful to those who understand their history. Organizations and activists have been gradually succeeding in educating the public on the importance of cultural sensitivity. 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, CO, 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, currently at the NMAI in New York, examines American Indian headdresses and their meanings from various tribes throughout North, Central and South America. A headdress, called a krokrokti, from the Mebêngôkre people of Brazil’s grasslands near the Amazon rainforest, is made of macaw and heron feathers. A woman wears this on her back during a child’s naming ceremony, celebrating the child growing into adulthood and preparing for adult responsibilities.
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.
Some celebrities, sporting events and Halloween costumes have popularized American Indian headdresses as fashion statements. Activists, like Vincent Schilling, a Native American journalist who is Akwesasne Mohawk, are trying to stop this misappropriation through education. Social media is helping. He said even though Native Americans only make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, social media “is so strong and so valiant,” that it is making a difference.
When some non-native people learn of the meanings and ceremonies behind headdresses, they stop wearing them and apologize. The recent Bass Coast Electronic Music and Arts Festival in British Columbia not only banned the spectators from wearing feathered headdresses but posted the warning on its Facebook page.
Headdresses tell a story of tribal traditions and personal accomplishments. Powwows, or gatherings, held throughout the U.S. and Canada show a vast array of ceremonial dress among the participants. It is the New York location of the National Museum of the American Indian that has the Infinity of Nations exhibit which examines the American Indian headdress, its history and its meaning. For more information on the exhibit, the website is listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
NMAI Infinity of Nations Exhibits
Gutierrez, Lisa. “Upholding Tradition, Demanding Respect.” The Kansas City Star Magazine, Aug. 10, 2014: 6-13 (Print)
Color photo of war bonnet by Ra’ike: Creative Commons License