Tuesday, September 9, 2014

War Bonnets

Last July, singer Pharell Williams appeared on the cover of Elle UK – a fashion magazine – wearing a regal Native American headdress. Williams, however, is not Native American, and the incident set off a stream of virulent social media protests which ultimately led to his apology: 
“I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.”

The incident caught my attention, as well, and aroused my curiosity about the meaning and significance of Native American headdresses. They have deep spiritual meaning.

For most of us, what we think of when we imagine a headdress is the “war bonnet”. Many of us first encountered the image on “Big Chief” tablets when we set off for school. We’ve probably seen them, too, in western movies. The war bonnet is also seen many times as part of Halloween costumes.

War bonnets were worn mostly by the Plains tribes.  These were hand-crafted and eagle feathers were used, based on the belief that the eagle was the greatest bird in the skies and that feathers could protect a wearer from harm. To gather the feathers, young birds were captured and taken from their nests. When the birds were older, the feathers would be plucked from their tails. Feathers were sometimes dyed with red or blue coloring. In addition, the headdresses were often adorned with pieces of fur and fancy bead work.

Now, of course, eagles are a protected species. The U. S. Government has set up the National Eagle Repository in order to provide today’s Native Americans with the golden eagle and bald eagle feathers required for religious and ceremonial use.

Eagle feathers were symbols of leadership among a tribe, and each individual feather was earned through a deed. They were typically worn only on special occasions. Although these elaborate headdresses are often referred to as “war bonnets”, they weren’t worn into battle. Rather, their purpose was to commemorate the valor of the men who had fought.  Today, Native Americans who have served in the U. S. military are often presented eagle feathers or war bonnets upon their return to show their bravery.

Although we all have the “war bonnet” image in our heads when we think of Native Americans, the reality is that the traditional war bonnet was worn by only a few Plains tribes such as the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Plains Cree. Later, as tribes were relocated by the government, the war bonnet was adopted by other native people, but without the same spiritual meaning and significance.

Another interesting note I learned is that although women of the Plains tribes sometimes went into battle, and in fact, sometimes became tribal chieftains, they were not allowed to wear the feathered war bonnet headdress. This was reserved for men only.

There are three primary types of war bonnet.

·         Trailer War Bonnet
·         Halo Bonnet
·         Straight-Up Bonnet

Trailer War Bonnet

As its name suggests, this headdress is long and flowing, trailing over the back of the wearer like a cascade. In most tribes, only few special leaders were allowed to wear this style of headdress. To earn so many feathers would truly be an incredible feat.

Halo Bonnet

The halo bonnet, like the one shown on the “Big Chief” illustration, has feathers fanning out in a circle, forming a halo-effect around the wearer’s head.

Straight-Up Bonnet

Rather that fanning out around the wearer’s head, the feathers in a “straight-up” bonnet did precisely that. They were placed to appear as though they were standing on end.

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In addition to the controversy caused by Pharrell Williams, other incidents have sparked outrage among Native American people. For more information about the misappropriation of the culture, you might want to visit the following website:

Many western romance writers make use of Native people in their stories, and it is important that we present them not as stereotypes, but as individual human beings. I believe it is is also important for each of us to learn about the native culture, to know their ways and traditions and to understand the spiritual meaning in their arts, crafts, and religious practices.


Troy D. Smith said...

Wearing a war bonnet as a fashion accessory is roughly equal to making an ironic hipster vest out of Purple Hearts.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks for the information. I enjoyed the post.

Julie Lence said...

Love this Christina. I've seen all 3 types of bonnets but never knew their names.