The Great Plains Indian/First Nation feathered headdress, commonly referred to as a “war bonnet,” is one of most recognizable items of indigeneity in North America due to its prevalence in mainstream media, fashion and sports. The common misconception is that all Native Americans wore war bonnets or that they were a fashionable accessory. In reality, the feathered bonnet headdress is a culturally and spiritually significant article of adornment for the tribes specifically from the Great Plains region. The most commonly appropriated war bonnet, featuring large face-framing feathers and a descending trailer, is most closely associated with the Lakota, Cheyenne, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Crow. Another version, adopted by the Blackfoot, has feathers placed upright, forming a crown.
Traditionally, only important chiefs and warriors could wear war bonnets, it was a privilege that was earned through acts of bravery and leadership. The headdress was, and is, often constructed with feathers from the golden eagle, which are believed to be the sacred messenger of the Thunderbird. Male warriors were rewarded with a feather after completing a great deed in battle, or by demonstrating acts of compassion. Once enough feathers were collected, a headdress would be made for them. As a result, the feathers in a war bonnet communicated a wearer’s rank and referenced specific achievements throughout their lifetime. It is also important to acknowledge that there are several configurations of feathered headdresses worn by other Native American tribes for various purposes.
Contemporary war bonnets have distanced themselves from associations with war and can be worn by a broader spectrum of people. However, feathered headdresses are not something that are bought or traded, but given as gifts which come with great responsibility to the community. They have and will continue to represent a wearer’s leadership, dedication and sacrifice.
Appropriation and Influence
Victoria's Secret, 2012
For their 2012 fashion show, Victoria’s Secret featured a “Native American” inspired look complete with fringed underwear, turquoise jewelry and a feathered war bonnet. The non-indigenous model, Karlie Kloss sporting the outfit walked down the aisle and yelped an “Indian war-cry.” This act is an example of microaggressions towards Native Americans and the look contributes to the sexualization of Indigenous women.
Pharrell Williams Elle UK Cover, 2010
Pharrell Williams wore a full Plains Indian style feathered headdress on the cover of Elle UK magazine. Despite Pharrell’s claims of having Native American ancestry, he has not earned the right to wear a full war bonnet. Additionally, featuring a sacred object of adornment on a magazine cover contributes to its commodification, secularization and devalues its significance.
Ke$ha American Idol Performance, 2010
Ke$ha has worn Native American inspired feathered headdresses on several occasions without permission. Halfway through her performance of “Blah Blah Blah” on American Idol, she put on a war bonnet while singing vulgar and inappropriate lyrics. Her behaviour while wearing a significant ceremonial object is extremely disrespectful to the Native American community and to the origins of the war bonnet.
Chanel Pre-Fall, 2014
Chanel’s Pre-Fall 2014 collection was inspired by “Cowboys and Indians.” Several of their looks featured vague influences from different Native American Tribes. The final look, worn by French model Caroline de Maigret, featured a long trailing white feathered headdress. The entire collection erases the distinctions across Native American cultures and promotes outdated stereotypes. As an influential luxury fashion brand, this collection also encourages cultural appropriation for the sake of fashion.
Bruchac, Margaret. “Considering the Feather Headdress.” Penn Museum, 2016. https://www.penn.museum/blog/museum/considering-the-feather-headdress/.
Green, Adriana Greci. “The Plains.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: The United States and Canada, edited by Phyllis G. Tortora, 437–446. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.
Kilroy-Ewbank, Lauren. “Feathered War Bonnet.” Smarthistory, 2015. https://smarthistory.org/feathered-war-bonnet/.
Monkman, Lenard. “Behind First Nations Headdresses: What you should know.” CBC News, 2016. https://www.cbc.ca/news/aboriginal/behind-first-nations-headdresses-1.3506224.
Refer to the Library for even more resources on Native American Headdress