Thanks to Hollywood and stereotyping, most people have the image of the Native American headdress as being a long, trailing feathered headpiece. But those headdresses were worn only by chiefs and warriors, usually on special ceremonial or formal occasions.
The feathered war bonnet was rarely worn on the battlefield. The ornate feathers and length of the headdress alone would have made fighting impractical. Each feather in the headdress had to be earned and it was an earned right to wear a headdress. Once a warrior earned enough feathers, the warrior’s closest men friends made them into a headdress.
The most prized feather for a headdress was the Golden Eagle. Native Americans revered the eagle as a messenger of God and the eagle feather was not easily earned. It had to be earned through hardship, loyalty and strength.
A warrior earned a feather only when the tribe felt he had done something considered a brave act. The bestowing of a feather upon a warrior was an honor for which the warrior must prepare with days of fasting and meditation.
Not all Native American tribes wore headdresses. Most of the tribes which adopted the headdress were Plains Indians, such as the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne and Plains Cree.
Buffalo Bill Cody was more than likely the first person to stereotype the Indian headdress. His Wild West shows during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s featured Native Americans in colorful dress wearing the long, trailing feathered war bonnets. The Natives then performed dances and displayed marksmanship and horsemanship. This image of the Native American became acceptable to the European settlers and this Indian stereotype was then picked up by Hollywood.
Roach headdresses, resembling the “Mohawk” haircut, were another form of widely-used headdress by the Native American Indian. This headdress was made from stiff animal hair such as porcupine, deer’s tail or moose hair. These headdresses were worn mostly by dancers, although warriors sometimes wore them into battle. The roach headdress was not as spiritually meaningful as the war bonnet, though a young man wearing a roach headdress for the first time was celebrated in some tribes. The roach headdress can be seen today worn by dancers at Powwows.
More rare is the Buffalo headdress. A pair of buffalo horns were attached to a buffalo hide helmet. Shaggy buffalo fur sometimes adorned the front of the headdress with a buffalo tail trailing behind. This was a most sacred headdress and worn only by a very distinguished male warrior. This headdress was worn by only a few of the Plains tribes.
Women were not allowed to wear either a feathered headdress or a Buffalo headdress. However, they sometimes did wear beaded headbands, with and without a feather or two, or tiara-style beaded caps. Children also at times wore beaded headbands.
Today, these headdresses and headbands are worn at Powwows or at tourist locations on or around Native American reservations.