National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum exhibit explores history of Native headdresses 

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In the basement of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, a climate-controlled environment where the museum stores much of its permanent collection, Eric Singleton prepares a grouping of nine headdresses for Power and Prestige: Headdresses of the American Plains. Singleton, curator of ethnology at the museum, said that while most people can identify a Native American headdress on sight, deeper understanding is a much rarer thing.

“I’ve liked headdresses for a long time, but there’s not a lot of data on them,” Singleton said. “They have a long history, and we’ve always looked at the eagle feather headdress and called it a war bonnet, and it became this iconic image of Native American history, but what is it? It’s been in film, it’s been in books, but what did it mean to the people?”

Power and Prestige, on display Aug. 26 through May 14, 2017 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63rd St., looks closely at the many forms headdresses took among the Blackfoot, Cheyenne-Arapaho, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota, and Pawnee tribes.

Form, function

While the most commonly recognized headdress, the eagle-feather war bonnet, represented status or leadership in many tribes, headdresses took many forms and served in multiple functions.

The exhibit explores who wore the headdresses, their function in the various Plains societies and how these aspects shifted depend on the maker or their tribe.

Much of this background on headdresses comes directly from ledger art included in the exhibit.

Ledger art, a form of hardline pictographic narrative art common to the Plains tribes in the 19th century, provides vivid timelines of major incidents in tribal history, and many offer great insight into the place headdresses held in the tribes.

On one piece of ledger art that covered events over the course of nearly a century, headdresses are depicted as stored outside lodges or tipis, which Singleton said was a move to preserve their purity.

“Sometimes it’s because headdresses are considered medicine,” Singleton said. “In order to keep them from being corrupted, they were kept outside.”

Materials often provide the best clues regarding the headdresses’ functions.

To make one of the war bonnets on display, the headdress maker would have used the tail feathers from three eagles, Singleton said.

Because feathers were bestowed for acts of bravery, a complete eagle-feather war bonnet was only worn by great leaders in the tribe.

Other headdresses made with owl feathers or ermine were typically worn by healers or medicine men.

“All of these different animals have intrinsic power within them,” Singleton said. “By donning them, you’re taking on their power.”

Earned prestige

But one size does not fit all. Singleton said the headdresses were specific to an individual wearer’s traits and, more to the point, their accomplishments.

No headdress can be considered generic.

“When looking at these headdresses, there are certain emblems on the bonnets, and you can tell who this person is, what their rank in society is or how wealthy they are,” he said.

These truths about headdresses explain the negative reaction to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s daughter, Christina Fallin, wearing a ceremonial war bonnet during a March 2014 photo shoot. Fallin told the Indian Country Today Media Network in 2014, “I think Native American culture is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, so I was naturally drawn to it.”

But Singleton said that mere admiration does not give a person the right to wear a headdress.

“It’s cultural appropriation in its basic form, but it’s also a lack of understanding of what this meant to the people,” Singleton said. “I equate it back to something we understand: the military. You don’t don a SEAL trident or a Medal of Honor without it being earned and bestowed upon you.

“It’s respect. The way I’ve always placed it, would you wear a Medal of Honor if you didn’t earn it? It’s the same thing. That’s why people were outraged. You’re taking something that is valuable, that meant something to the tribe and was in a place of honor and respect, and you wore it out of context. You didn’t earn it. That’s where the outrage came from, and I think it’s justified.”

Print headline: Famous feathers, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s new exhibit explores the artistry and importance of Native American headdresses.

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