Published on March 25, 2013 by Casey
Warbonnets (or war bonnets) are the impressive feather headdresses commonly seen in Western movies and TV shows. Although warbonnets 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 first photograph, you can see a Dakota Sioux warrior wearing a trailer warbonnet (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 event 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.
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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 warbonnets. 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 warbonnet 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 warbonnets 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.