Warbonnets (or war bonnets) are the impressive feather headdresses commonly seen in Western movies and TV shows. Although warbonnets are the best-known type of Indian headdress today, they were actually worn by only a dozen or so Indian tribes such as the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Plains Cree in the Great Plains region. A trailer warbonnet is a headdress with single or double rows of eagle feathers descending in a long 'tail' to the ground. A Halo warbonnet is a headdress with eagle feathers fanned out around the face in an oval shape. All warbonnets were made from the tail feathers of the golden eagle, and each feather had to be earned through an act of bravery. Sometimes a feather might be painted with red dye to commemorate a particular deed. Besides the feathers, Plains Indian warbonnets were often decorated with ermine skins and fancy beadwork.
Warbonnets were important ceremonial regalia worn only by chiefs and warriors, and were only worn by men. Women sometimes went to war in some Plains Indian tribes, and there were even some female chiefs, but they never wore headdresses. Plains Indian men occasionally wore them while they were fighting, but more often they wore roach headdresses into battle and saved their warbonnets for formal occasions. In particular, long feather trailers were never worn on the battlefield. It would be impossible to fight while wearing them!
In the 1800s, Native American men from other tribes began to wear Plains-style warbonnets. In part this was because of the American tourist industry, which expected Native Americans to look a certain way. In part it was because many Native American tribes were forced to move to Oklahoma and other Indian territories during this time in history, so tribes that used to live far apart began adopting customs from their new neighbors. In most cases, the pieces did not have the same significance among the new tribes that adopted them. For them, it was a matter of fashion or a general symbol of authority. For the Plains Indian tribes, they were a sacred display of a man's honor and courage, and each feather told a story. Eagle feathers still sometimes are awarded to Plains Indians who serve in the military or do other brave deeds today.
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