Photography: Courtesy National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
Photography: Courtesy National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

A new exhibition showcases the power and prestige of the headdress.

Headdresses are definitely not one-size-fits-all or appropriation-appropriate for hipster headgear, as Eric Singleton, curator of ethnology at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, can attest: “They likely developed based on the social and religious needs and beliefs of the tribe or an individual, what region they inhabited, and the resources available to them. Every headdress, like a person, has its own history. Each one is unique.” That in and of itself, he says, makes all headdresses special — and it’s what makes them a compelling subject for the exhibition Power and Prestige: Headdresses of the American Plains, which features 11 different headdresses, along with a hide painting, ledger art, contemporary art from the Kiowa Six, photographs of cave paintings, and photographs by Edward S. Curtis.

“Headdresses were worn by warriors, dancers, shamans, and even women on the North American Great Plains,” Singleton says. “Each indicated rank within the tribe, a person’s membership in a specific tribal society, was a sign of wealth, or a display of spiritual power.” In exploring the significance and history of the headdress, particularly the eagle feather headdress, the exhibition makes plenty of important points, but the one that Singleton especially hopes viewers will take to heart is this: “These items were not simply props in movies or simply used for war. Rather, they are objects of honor, similar to the Medal of Honor, and should be respected.”


Prestige and Power: Headdresses of the American Plains is on view through May 14 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

From the January 2017 issue.

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