Opening August 26 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Power and Prestige: Headdresses of the American Plains explores the nature and design of the iconic eagle feather headdress. Known from films, novels, and Wild West shows as the war bonnet, it is often seen as the singular piece of adornment that defines nearly all Native American people.  This, however, is absolutely untrue.  There were, and still are, many different types of headdresses.

In North America, the use of headgear goes back thousands of years and is seen in a variety of media.  Beautifully sculpted Caddoan ceramics, engraved whelk shell harvested from the Gulf of Mexico, and embossed copper plates mined in various locations around Lake Superior, Nova Scotia, and the Appalachian Mountains are just a few ancient materials showing incised, painted, and pressed images of warriors and deities wearing headdresses.

Following the arrival of Europeans, narratives from the Spanish, French, and English describe them, and drawings, watercolors, and engravings from the late 1500s show them being worn.  Made using wooden planks, feathers, animal heads, and numerous other items, Native Americans wore them for social, religious, and medicinal purposes.  Each headdress symbolized something specific. They were not worn for beauty, although they are beautiful, or on a whim.  They were vessels with which a warrior, medicine man, or tribal leader communed with, and embodied the power of, the supernatural entities who directed the living world.
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Perhaps the most unique style, and one of our favorites, incorporates birds.  Native Americans wore kingfishers, eagles, hawks, and other birds, to gain the power they possessed.  Today, images of people wearing birds as headdresses are identified in ledger art, ceramics, paintings, and photographs. One of the most famous images is a photograph of Crow Warrior Two Whistles by Edward S. Curtis.

Born in 1856, Two Whistles was a member of the Not Mixed Clan.  This clan derived its name, ū’sawatsi’a, from its social position. Comprised mostly of war captains, they did not “mix” with others in the tribe. The power or medicine that members held, as well as most tribes and clans, came through dreams and visions. In these, a specific animal told a warrior or medicine man how to construct a headdress.

For those who did not have a dream or vision, such as Two Whistles, the medicine they needed could be purchased from another individual. This person made the item and provided specific instructions for its use.  This included both requirements and taboos involving eating, singing, painting and the touching of others.  The medicine Two Whistles used came from a hawk and was purchased from a Sioux for the price of a horse.

To learn more about Two Whistles, Native American ledger art and headdresses in general, please come to the Museum August 26, 2016—May 14, 2017 for the exhibit Power and Prestige Headdresses of the American Plains.