Headdresses

Museum Headdress

A Chippewa headdress. Headdresses were usually made from the fur and feathers of sacred animals and were thought to give the power of the animals to the person wearing the headdress. Reproduced by permission of © Bowers Museum of Cultural Art/CORBIS.

The tall, feathered headdress has come to be one of the most recognizable symbols of the Native American people of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Books and movies about Indians often picture them wearing the large feathered headdresses that white people called "war bonnets," and many children around the world have toy versions of the feathered headdress that they use to "play Indian." In reality there were hundreds of Indian nations throughout the Americas and only a few tribes who lived in the western plains of the United States wore that type of elaborate headdress. The feathered headdress, once a badge of honor and power, has become a stereotype of all Indians.

A Chippewa headdress. Headdresses were usually made from the fur and feathers of sacred animals and were thought to give the power of the animals to the person wearing the headdress. Reproduced by permission of © Bowers Museum of Cultural Art/CORBIS.

Many Native American people wore some kind of decorative headdress. These headdresses were usually only worn for special ceremonies. The right to wear a headdress had to be earned, and the type of headdress showed the rank of the wearer. Chiefs and high-ranking warriors might wear a special headdress, as might the medicine healer of the tribe. Though most headdresses were worn by men, some women wore them as well. Headdresses were usually made from the fur and feathers of especially sacred animals and were thought to give the power of the animals to the person wearing the headdress. The Iroquois who lived around northern New York wore a kind of flat hat that was covered with feathers, while their neighbors the Algonquin wore only one feather, which either stood up or hung down from the top of the head. The Mohegada of New England wore two feathers in their headdress, and the Nootka and Haida people of the Pacific Northwest wore carved wooden headdresses or hats woven out of grasses, spruce tree roots, and cedar bark.

The widely recognized headdress of the Plains Indians was usually made of eagle feathers, sometimes with the fur and horns of the buffalo, which were so important to the survival of the tribe. Feathers and fur were attached to a leather band that was decorated with beads in sacred shapes and designs. Even among the Indians of the plains, styles of headdress varied from tribe to tribe. The eagle feathers stood straight up on the headdresses worn by the Blackfoot tribe, while the Crow headdresses lay flatter along the top of the head. The Sioux wore the biggest and most colorful headdresses with geometric designs beaded into the headband.

The tall headdresses may have become so strongly identified with all Indian people because of "Wild West" shows, such as the one produced by the famous Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917). These shows, which were popular in the United States and Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s, featured real Indians who were dressed in elaborate colorful costumes and performed ceremonial dances and feats of marksmanship and horsemanship. To many people, these theatrical Indians became the symbol of the "real" Indian, even though they only represented a small part of the Native American population and way of life.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The Plains Indian War Bonnet: History and Construction. Tulsa, OK: Full Circle Communications, Inc., 1998.

Zenk, Henry B. Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

The Mohawk hairstyle is distinguished by a ridge of hair sticking straight up, running down the center of the head from the forehead to the nape of the neck, with the rest of the head shaved. It originated among Native American tribes in North America and Canada and was often not made of human hair but rather of a "deer roach," a piece of deer tail with skin and fur attached and worn atop the head.

French explorer Samuel de Champlain (c. 1567—1635) first noted the hairstyle among the Hurons of southwestern Ontario in the early 1600s. The name Huron, in fact, comes from the old French word hure, meaning "boar's head," after the stiff ridge of hair bristles along the head of a boar. Other Native American tribes wore their hair in this fashion as well. There is even a tribe called the Mohawk tribe, though there is no evidence to suggest that the Mohawk tribe originated the style. The first time the Mohawk hairstyle was identified with the Mohawk tribe was in a book written in 1656 by a Dutch Reform minister named Johannes Megatolensis. The illustration of a Mohawk hairstyle included in his book was of a Long Island Algonquin, not a Mohawk.

In the 1970s the Mohawk became a popular hairstyle among punk rockers, fans of punk rock music, who liked its menacing look. The actor Mr. T sported a variation of the Mohawk on his 1980s action TV series The A-Team.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Groning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

Raphael, Mitchell. "Who Really Sported the First Mohawk?" Canku Ota. http://www.turtletrack.org/Issues01/Co06302001/C0_06302001_ Mohawk.htm (accessed on July 31, 2003).

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