War bonnet

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Muscogee war bonnet
A modern-day Cheyenne dog soldier wearing a feathered headdress during a pow wow at the Indian Summer festival in Henry Maier Festival Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 2008.

Feathered war bonnets (also called warbonnets or headdresses) are worn by males of the American Plains Indians who have earned a place of great respect in their tribe. Originally they were sometimes worn into battle but they are now primarily used for ceremonial occasions. They are seen as items of great spiritual and political importance.[1][2]

Ceremonial importance

In the collection of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis

Native American tribes consider the presentation of an eagle feather to be one of their highest marks of respect. Any honored person must have earned their feather through selfless acts of courage and honour, or been gifted them in gratitude for their work or service to their tribe. Traditional deeds that brought honour would include acts of valor in battle, but also political and diplomatic gains or acts that helped their community survive and prosper. The esteem attached to eagle feathers was so high that in many cases, such as a warrior (e.g. Dog Soldiers of the Cheyenne), only two or three honour feathers might be awarded in their whole lifetime. Historically, the warrior who was the first to touch an enemy in battle and escape unscathed received an eagle feather. When enough feathers were collected, they might be incorporated into a headdress or some other form of worn regalia. Headdresses were usually reserved exclusively for the tribe's chosen political and spiritual leaders.

Roman Nose, who was one the most influential Cheyenne warriors of the Plain Indian Wars of the 1860s, was known for his illustrious warbonnet that was said to protect him during battle. Several instances record how while wearing his war bonnet, he rode back and forth before soldiers of the United States Army and, despite being fired upon, was left unscathed.[2]

Today a headdress remains the highest highest mark of respect and should never be worn without the express permission of tribal leaders.


Plains-style bonnets are still almost always made out of eagle feathers because the eagle is considered by most tribes of the Interior Plains to be the greatest and most powerful of all birds. Under current federal legislation, the Eagle feather law enables American Indians to continue using eagle feathers in their traditional spiritual and cultural practices. The exemption is contained within the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. In the United States, only enrolled members of a federally recognized Native American tribe may legally collect or possess eagle feathers.

One traditional method of acquiring feathers for bonnets is for young eagles to have their maturest tail feathers plucked while still in the nest. This can be done three times before the feathers do not grow back. As many as thirty six feathers can be collected in this manner. If care is taken in not disturbing the nest, this method can be repeated yearly. [3]

Cultural appropriation

The wearing of such headdresses by those who have not earned them, especially by non-Natives as fashion or costume, is offensive to many native peoples.[4] The imitation of Native headdresses is seen as "the embodiment of cultural appropriation. ...donning a highly sacred piece of Native culture like a fashion accessory."[5][6]

See also


  1. Life of George Bent: Written From His Letters, by George E. Hyde, edited by Savoie Lottinville, University of Oklahoma Press (1968), hardcover, 390 pages; trade paperback, 280 pages (March 1983), pages 207, 213, 214, 221, 239, 240, 303. ISBN 0-8061-1577-7, ISBN 978-0-8061-1577-1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Battle of Beecher Island and the Indian War of 1867–1869, by John H. Monnett, University Press of Colorado (1992), pages 46 to 48. ISBN 0-87081-347-1.
  3. Grinnell, George Bird (2008). The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways. World Wisdom, Inc. p. 209.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Houska, Tara. "'I Didn't Know' Doesn't Cut It Anymore". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved April 20, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Keene, Adrienne (April 27, 2010) "But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?" at Native Appropriations – Examining Representations of Indigenous Peoples.
  6. Ehrlich, Brenna (June 4, 2014) "Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Wear A Native American Headdress" for MTV News.

External links