War Bonnets




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By Ernest Thompson Seton

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Fig. 84

The war bonnet of the Sioux is, in my opinion, the most gorgeously picturesque headdress ever invented by a primitive people. It is so superbly decorative, symbolic, and splendid, that it has spread, in the last fifty years, to nearly every Indian tribe. In all our allegorical art it has become the Redman's typical adornment, notwithstanding the fact that it was the last of the representative headgears to be discovered by the White explorers of this continent.

There are many varieties of the war bonnet, but experience shows that it is best to stick to the simplest design. I have seen many with bunches of ribbon at each ear; many with a medicine plume in the center; some with a tail that trailed on the ground except when the wearer was on horseback; some with two tails, some with no tail at all some with a buffalo horn at each ear; some with strings of mirrors behind. But, in each and all, the central essential, typical and glorious thing dominant, was the sunburst of white eagle plumes.

Therefore, I shall describe the making of that, omitting the tail, medicine plume, and the horns, etc.


We must assume that real eagle feathers are not available, the substitute being the "white quills" sold by all [craft] supply houses. You will need thirty of these; and, sink they are really from the wings of swans, etc., they should be half right and half lefts.

Next, we need a quantity of white down. The entire product of white Brahma's rear elevation would be about right. This may be used white, or dyed yellow or red.

We need further some thin leather, some fine linen thread, shoe-maker's wax, a yellow or red dyed horsetail of the kind sold as harness hangers, and some thin red flannel.

Preparing the Feather

On the barrel of the feather, 2 inches from the bottom, lay on enough down to make a big fluffy ruff, then lash that on with a wax-end.

With real eagle feathers it was usual to cut away half of the quill for 1 1/2 inches near the bottom, then bend the remaining half and thrust it into the barrel, to give a strong loop. But the swan feathers have less quill and must have a different attachment. This is made of a leather strap, 4 inches long and 1/8 inch wide, lashed on the barrel of the quill as in the sketch, with a waxed thread or wax-end. The quill itself should be rubbed with wax before the lashing goes on as this prevents slipping.

Over this leather, now stitch a cover of red flannel for a finish. Near the 2 ends of this wrapping, wind it with white cord, in a band wide enough to be easily visible at a distance.

The top end of the feather is to be decorated with a down tuft of the same color as that below. This may be glued on, but is better if it have also a thread lashing, and a helpful final touch is a white paper circle 3/4 inch across glued on this.

Projecting above and beyond, if you desire it, is a tuft of yellow or red horsehair, 4 or 5 inches long, neatly lashed as before to the mid-rib of the quill.

Prepare the 30 quills all in the same way. I have seen the corona made of 24 quills--2 tails--but it looks skimpy unless you have real eagle tail feathers which are very broad.

The vast majority of war bonnets these days are founded on the crown of an old felt hat; but the primitive fashion is good enough, and is more enduring.

Make a strip of leather or buckskin, 23 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide. Sew this into a circle to fit your head just above the eyes and ears. Divide this along the middle line into 30 spaces; then at either side of each dividing line push 2 holes big enough for a lace.

Assembling the Crown

Lay the 30 plumes in a row, beginning in the middle with the largest, and selecting all the right feathers for the right side, etc., carefully changing them about till you have them best fitted to each other, and to the circle.

The leather circle should now be held on two fingers or two pegs, upside-down, while the feathers are strung on. Begin at the middle of the front, put the lace from the inside through a hole, through the leather loop of a plume, then back through the next hole; and so on, doing the 15 on one side, then the 15 on the other, again beginning at the middle of the front.

The spacing string is next, and calls for some very deft handling. This is a linen thread well waxed, which is passed with a needle through the mid-rib of each quill at half its height. It must go through the whole 30 feathers, and its ends be tied loosely together. The feathers must now be evenly adjusted, so as to form the perfect cone-shape, the feathers flaring out in a circle about 20 inches in diameter. If more than that, the crown is over-spread at the points, and never keeps its shape; every puff of wind deranges it. If less than that, it looks like a stove-pipe hat.

The Decorations

There are three decorations that are never omitted in a complete war bonnet-the beaded brow-band, the ear targets, and the ear plumes.

The beaded brow-band or frontlet, extending across the brow, below the feather bases, should be chiefly white, and of very simple pattern, such as a line of tepees or of square blocks. Sometimes, this is painted when there is no time to bead it.

The ear targets should be round, much wider than the brow-band, chiefly white, and beaded or painted.

The ear plumes hang from a cord in the middle of the target, or else underneath it. I have seen feathers, bead strings, thongs, and ribbons used for these; but the ideal always has been ermine skins and tails, four on each side, and pulled out into long thin streamers. Real ermine is over-costly; but I have made a good imitation out of a strip of white rabbit fur, and finished off with a black tip of cat or skunk fur.

Rhythm of the Redman






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.