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Magnificent Animal Headdresses of Native Americans

American Indians derived strength, courage, and cunning from animal spirits.

Inspiration from animals and nature is perhaps the oldest origin of religion, for early humans shared their beginnings with both and relied on both for survival. Animal mysticism—what anthropologists call “animism”— is a fundamental fiber of all Native American cultures. They attribute plants and animals, the land and earth, with souls.

They particularly admired animals for their unique features. And Indians sought to acquire those traits—bravery, strength, ferocity, intelligence, loyalty, and understanding—through honoring particular animals. When they killed an animal for food and sustenance, they gave thanks to that animal. They wore animal heads as ceremonial headdresses and used the sources of their might—teeth, fangs, claws, rattles, testicles, beaks, birth sacs, umbilical cords—as symbols and progenitors of their own spiritual and physical strength. Wearers believed that the bodies of animals could bring “strong medicine,” that is, bestow powers that the animal had held to the wearer. 

Tribes had unique styles and traditions of headgear, but styles were also highly individualistic, reflecting the creativity, attainments, and salient characteristics of the wearer. Styles were also influenced by trading with other native tribes, then later with whites, gift-giving, honors, and personal experiences. For example, if, during a spirit quest or hunting or raiding expedition, an individual encountered a bear or survived a close encounter with a bull bison, that experience might be reflected in dress. 

Not surprisingly, apex predators were greatly admired for their power and fierceness. Whole pelts, heads, or body parts of wolves, bears, eagles, cougars, and hawks were often used. Buffalo, too, were crucial animals in the survival of many tribes, especially the Plains Indians, and their heads and horns were often utilized in dress. Buffalo horns were symbols of magnificent strength and bravery and were worn by warriors of only the highest order. 

But Native Americans appreciated all of nature and noticed admirable traits in most animals. Although animal mysticism was subject to tribal and individualistic interpretations, the following are some attributes often given to specific animals across native cultures:

Badger – knowing boundaries and when to fight

Bear – strength, perseverance, ferocity

Beaver – industrious, homebuilder, family, health

Buffalo – endurance, abundance, survival, power

Cougar – leadership, independence, patience

Coyote – wily, trickster, resourceful

Crow – intelligent, adaptable, resilient, strategist

Deer – Nimble, watchful, ready to leap into action

Eagle – courage, resilient, vision, reaching new heights

Elk – Bravery, competitive, nobility

Hawk – focus, patience, opportunity

Horse – freedom, journey, very intuitive, “sixth sense”

Otter – playfulness, affectionate

Owl – wisdom, quietude, thoughtfulness

Porcupine – protector, defender

Salmon – strength, determination, rebirth, 

Turkey – abundance, harvest, generosity, pride

Turtle – grounded, peaceful, determined

Wolf – intelligence, teacher, organizer, hunter

 

Explorers Lewis and Clark and Jacques Marquette documented many of the spectacular styles of tribes they encountered across the continent, as did artists, writers, and historians, George Catlin, John White, Karl Bodner, Paul Kane, and others. One contemporary reference, The Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume, by Josephine Paterek, is a 500-page tome that details the clothing and regalia of several hundred tribes. 

The Native American imagination was as boundless as the natural world from which they drew inspiration for self-expression and attire. Their creations were documented in art, journals of whites, and native oral traditions. Many others are lost to posterity.

The Powhatan of Virginia were among some of the first Indians encountered by whites and their styles mesmerized the new settlers. They particularly liked bird headgear with hawk or vulture wings. But, William Strachey, the secretary of historical Jamestown, wrote of a Powhatan shaman who wore a spectacular bonnet with more than a dozen snake and weasel bodies stuffed with moss hanging around his head!

The Abenaki of early Maine sometimes wore a buck’s head with the rack intact. This enabled hunters to get closer to their prey. Another Abenaki hat style was made from the hump of a moose, with a tall crest at the top of hump hair. 

The Iroquois of the Northeast wore a headdress of copious layered feathers, with one golden eagle feather standing upright atop their head that rotated in a bone socket!

The Chippewa of the Great Lakes wore a rawhide headband decorated with feathers of eagles, woodpeckers, quail, pheasant, or drake. 

Because most Plains Indians were nomadic and traded, hunted, and sometimes warred alongside other tribes, they were exposed to a broad spectrum of different tribal influences and their headgear and regalia were wildly diverse and elaborate. Buffalo, wolf, bear, cougar, eagle, and elk heads and parts were very popular for headgear. 

When the Nez Perce attained horses, they began to travel to the Plains to hunt buffalo in late summer with plains tribes and adopted some of their styles. They wore war bonnets of entire wolf heads with ears erect, and adorned with bear claws, eagle feathers, and other decorations. Others wore buffalo horns or heads. 

Many Southwest tribes—especially the Apache, Navajo, and Hopi—often went bareheaded or wore kerchief headbands, perhaps as a practicality of living in very hot climes. Some tribes close to the Mexican border cherished fantastic ceremonial headdresses made of colorful macaw feathers, however. 

The Lummi and Skykomish of the Northwest wore caps made of mountain goats' heads with their ears and horns intact, tied with a rawhide chin strap. 

The creative spirit of Native Americans drew from Nature’s palette and was as fantastical and magnificent as the animal kingdom. In the dominion of human apparel, they could teach a thing or two to haute couture designers of Paris, Milan, and New York today!

PHOTOS: (1) A 1908 Edward S. Curtis photograph of Two Whistles, an Absaroka (Crow) man with a face painted, wearing a medicine hawk headdress, buckskin shirt, and shell necklaces. (2) Contemporary wolf headdress, possibly in the warrior style of traditional Cheyenne dog soldiers with white painted faces with stark dark streaks and black lips. Dog soldiers were so named for the qualities they shared with wolves: ferocious fighters, strong, fearless, loyal, fighting together to protect the pack. (3) A Sia buffalo mask, circa 1925. Photograph by Edward Curtis. The Sia were a Keres or Tiwa Pueblo native people of New Mexico. From the Portland Art Museum collection. (4) A modern Dog Soldier headdress with a variety of feathers from eagles, hawks, and wild turkeys. From the Indian Summer National Festival & Powwow, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 2008. (5) Spectacular modern feathered headdress worn by Native American dancer who also carries an eagle head “spirit stick” or “medicine stick.” (6) Contemporary weasel head headdress. Like beavers and otters, weasels were much admired by Native Americans for being resourceful, crafty, hardworking, playful, and very social. (7) Eagle bonnet worn by Crow warrior of eastern Montana tribe. They called themselves Absaroka, meaning “children of the large-beaked bird.” Long Otter’s raptor headdress was attached with rawhide laces. Before the battle, he painted his face yellow, his body blue, and the back of his head red to attract the strongest challengers. Circa 1905. Photo by Gary Coffrin. (8) Famous frontier artist and sculptor, Frederic Remington’s depiction of Medicine Elk, an Oglala Sioux shaman wearing an elk headdress with a massive rack. Circa 1875. (9) Full-body cougar headdress. Contemporary. Photo from naturepunk. (10) The coyote headdress of a shaman depicts a “trickster spirit” often associated with coyotes, who are clever, persistent, curious, and playful. (11) A cinnamon-bear headdress. A cinnamon bear is essentially a cinnamon-colored black bear. Contemporary. (12) Contemporary badger headdress adorned with turkey and sage grouse feathers. The badger pelt includes the head, tail, and claws. By Alabama Echota Cherokee Artist Erica Milford.

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