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What War Bonnets can tell us about Culture

By Deni Seymour

For years, I’ve been collecting photographs of Native American headdresses on a private Pinterest boardphotographs I’ve found while investigating Southwestern weaponry, warrior and ceremonial garb, as well as the more mundane aspects of clothing, footwear, and material culture. As an anthropologist and historian I have a natural interest in such details, always on the lookout for meaning in symbolic representation. Sometimes these images capture bygone traditional styles that are vaguely mentioned in old texts or that have been missed as relevant by historians. Others demonstrate important aspects of traditional lifeways that can be used to illustrate articles and books. In many instances, they are personal expressions by the wearers, and thus provide an intimate connection to the past. Among these are iconic cloth headbands of the nineteenth-century Apache. But from these black-and-white images, we cannot discern that, as Eve Ball’s Chiricahua Apache informant reported, it was only US Apache military scouts that wore red headbands to signal their association.

Many of these photographs suggest that there is a generalized Southwestern war bonnet or headdress style, with subtle variations. In fact, one of these photos, the war bonnet donned so regally by Cochise’s son Naiche, was a general design shared to some degree by many neighboring tribes, including the Sobaipuri O’odham, the Maricopa, and others. Variations in style and manufacture within this general headdress type signaled group identity and personality, while the primary purpose of many was concealment and protection.

The Apache war bonnet was leather and crowned with dozens of owl feathers, providing  spiritual protection in addition to camouflaging the wearer’s presence by breaking the warrior’s visual outline, allowing him to blend with the terrain. The cap might have been beaded or adorned with metal studs (figures 1 and 2). On the other hand, a headdress from a Gila River O’odham group consisted of feathers from three different species of raptorial birds, all fierce hunters, along with enemy scalps. SeeBelowThis difference suggests that feathers considered spiritually protective varied between tribes, even though the concept and design of the headdress remained similar among these quintessential Southwestern tribes. Notice that these headdresses were quite different from those of the Plains tribes: the iconic feathered headdress that mounted the wearer’s head in an array of upright feathers, sometimes then trailing down the back bone like an elaborate dorsal fin. Despite the fact that Geronimo posed in such fancy headgear , as did many other native photographic subjects of the time, this was not the style utilized in the mountainous Southwest.

Of course, even within a group, there were different types of headgear; some were for warfare while others were for social occasions. Social headdresses sometimes had two upright feathers with iridescent turkey feathers covering the leather . These headdresses served a different function than those worn in war; the idea was to be showy for a ceremony or social event rather than hide the warrior’s profile from the enemy.

Geronimo in head dress.

In war, the headdress not only concealed and protected the warrior, it also served as a means of signaling. Prior to the introduction of longer range weapons, battlefield participants fought up close.

They could see one another, converse, toss threats back and forth, and quite often they knew exactly who they were fighting, calling them out by name. Even at a distance, they knew from sight which group they were opposing. This close-order fighting is detailed in a late nineteenth-century account, often thought apocryphal, recorded by John Cremony. Cremony wrote that he pointed out the Apache leader Delgadito to a companion who then got within 260 yards of him. Delgadito was “slapping his buttocks and defying us with the most opprobrious language. While in the act of exhibiting his posteriors–a favorite taunt among the Apaches–he uncovered them to Wells, who took deliberate aim and fired.

This mark of attention was received by Delgadito with an unearthly yell and a series of dances and capers that would put a maitre de ballet to the blush.” Close-order fighting dictated by weapons range and fighting tactics explains why certain villages were selected for attack over others.

The scouts and auxiliary troops that accompanied foreign armies would have been known by name and sight, and while soldiers readily retreated to their distant presidios, the villages of the indigenous participants were situated at the fringe of and often in the midst of the enemy territory. The enemy would attack those who had attacked them.

Spanish soldiers inspected a village battlefield and the retreat route taken from an attack on Easter Day, March 30, 1698. They distinguished the number dead from each tribe. The fact that they were able to say how many died from each tribe indicates that headgear, perhaps along with such things as face paint, haircuts, and clothing, might have been signaling their cultural affiliation.

Given the importance of headgear in conveying group affiliation, it is not surprising that rebellious eighteenth century O’odham donned Apache-style headgear to conceal their own rebellious acts against the church and crown so that the targets of their ire would believe the Apache were attacking. This seems apparent at Guevavi in 1754, when Padre Francisco Pauer recorded that bands of rebellious O’odham were seen wearing Apache war caps.

We also know from historical accounts that indigenous groups commonly used tactics to lead the enemy to believe their allies were disloyal. For example, in 1697, Captain Juan Mateo Manje recorded that the Jocome spoke O’odham when stealing mission horses from Chinapa in an effort to break the O’odham-Spanish alliance. These tactics parallel those of Boston Tea Party events in 1773, wherein the many of the Sons of Liberty who were opposing British tea taxes dressed up like Native Americans and emptied the ships’ cargo holds of tea into the bay.

Naturally, care must be taken in our interpretation of available images of headdresses, because so many were staged by the photographer, choosing just the right Native Americanor at least a willing oneto pose, regaled in garb obtained from a local trading post or accompanied by trinkets that over the years had accumulated in the prop chest. But careful analysis of historical images can at the same time provide deeper understandings of customs that have been normalized into a pan-Native American image that glosses over the distinctions between peoples that made the past so rich.


  1. Penachos is what they were called?

  2. What does your research tell you about the Yavapai War Headdress since history and historians have misidentified Yavapai as (Apache) (Mojave-Apache) (Yuma-Apache)?

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