Native Warbonnets-Prestige, Power & Pomp

Sacred, awe-inspiring, and fantastical works of art that held great power for Native Americans

Perhaps the most iconic insignia of Native American dress recognized by the rest of the world is the Plains Indian Warbonnet. It is a magnificent creation that was considered sacred and represented status, leadership, and bravery. The warbonnets were viewed as regal and awe-inspiring, and whites especially were fascinated by the ferocity they symbolized.

Native headdresses, in fact, are found in numerous forms and serve multiple purposes. And many are more splendiferous and colorful than any Victorian lady’s plumed chapeau. But they were not made of spangles and baubles but the flora and fauna of Nature in its most raw and beautiful forms and were believed to draw power from the creatures and plants from which they came.

The materials gleaned from Nature were infinite and drawn not only from a tribe's traditional palette, but also the individual tastes and personality of the wearer: feathers of eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, turkeys, woodpeckers, and many other birds; tails of ermine, cougar, wolf, beaver, or weasel; claws of bear and teeth of elk; antlers of stag and horns of buffalo; porcupine quills, turkey hackles, horse hair, hooves; heads or whole pelts of wolf, cougar, bear, buffalo or elk; woven reeds and grasses, flowers, pods, and other flora. Nature provided all inspiration, raw materials, and natural dyes from all the colors of the rainbow.

The types of war bonnets differed between tribes and regions and the materials differed as well in their symbolism. Eagle or hawk feathers were often used by warriors. Owl feathers or ermine were typically worn more by healers of medicine men. Animals were honored for their intrinsic powers. By donning a part of that animal, a wearer could acquire those powers.

War bonnets were considered sacred. And the honor to wear one had to be earned. The war bonnet was also specific to the wearer, unique in its meaning and its story, its power, and its prestige. Sometimes, a war bonnet was considered to hold so much power as to be a talisman against harm in battle. Roman Nose, one of the most famous Cheyenne warriors of the Plains Indian Wars in the 1860s, was known for his immense warbonnet of many eagle feathers. Many believed his headdress protected him during battle, for he was known to gallop in front of ranks of soldiers taunting them and, though riding through a rain of fire, remained unscathed.

Some Plains chieftains had achieved so many feats of bravery, acts of defying injury or death--called "counting coup"-- that their headdresses extended to their feet and drug on the ground. They were as regal as the robes of European royalty, honored insignias of rank, badges of courage, proclaiming to the earth and heavens that here walked a brave man.


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