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Feathered war bonnets (also called warbonnets or headdresses) are worn by honored Plains Indian men. In the past they were sometimes worn into battle, but most often worn for ceremonial occasions as is the case today. They are seen as items of great spiritual and magical importance. The eagle is considered by Plains tribes as the greatest and most powerful of all birds, and thus the finest bonnets are made out of its feathers.
Its beauty was considered of secondary importance; the bonnet's real value was in its supposed power to protect the wearer. The bonnet is still only to be worn on special occasions and is highly symbolic.
The bonnet had to be earned through brave deeds in battle because the feathers signified the deeds themselves. Some warriors might have obtained only two or three honor feathers in their whole lifetime, so difficult were they to earn. The bonnet was also a mark of highest respect because it could never be worn without the consent of the leaders of the tribe. A high honor, for example, was received by the warrior who was the first to touch an enemy fallen in battle, for this meant the warrior was at the very front of fighting. Feathers were notched and decorated to designate an event and told individual stories such as killing, capturing an enemy's weapon and shield, and whether the deed had been done on horseback or foot.
After about ten honors had been won, the warrior went out to secure the eagle feathers with which to make his bonnet. In some tribes these had to be purchased from an individual given special permission to hunt the bird; a tail of twelve perfect feathers could bring the seller as much as a good horse. Some tribes permitted a warrior to hunt his own eagles. This was a dangerous and time-consuming mission and meant that he had to leave the tribe and travel to the high country where the bird could be found. When the destination had been reached, ceremonies were conducted to appeal to the spirits of the birds to be killed.
A chief's war bonnet is made of feathers received for good deeds to his community and is worn in high honor. Each feather would represent a good deed. A warrior's war bonnet, such as the famous war bonnet of Roman Nose, the Cheyenne warrior, was said to protect him during battle. In several instances, Roman Nose, wearing his war bonnet, rode back and forth before soldiers of the United States Army during battles of the Indian Wars and, despite being fired upon by many soldiers, was unscathed.[dubious ]
Chiefs and honored warriors still often wear war bonnets for ceremonial occasions.
- Life of George Bent: Written From His Letters, by George E. Hyde, edited by Savoie Lottinville, University of Oklahoma Press (1968), hardcover, 390 pages; trade paperback, 280 pages (March 1983), pages 207, 213, 214, 221, 239, 240, 303. ISBN 0-8061-1577-7, ISBN 978-0-8061-1577-1.
- The Battle of Beecher Island and the Indian War of 1867–1869, by John H. Monnett, University Press of Colorado (1992), pages 46 to 48. ISBN 0-87081-347-1.
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