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.
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.
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.