Plains Indian Headdresses at the Cowboy Museum: Clearing up the history of a Western icon

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OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA -- Modern day museum goers tend to look at these beautiful Plains Indian headdresses as works of art.

With their sweeping eagle feathers, the intricate bead work, and their use in actual paintings, it's difficult to see past their visual appeal.

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum curator Eric Singleton is hoping to expand those ideas.

"This is our opportunity for use to re-examine the headdress," he says, "and to really look at it from its iconic place and what it really meant."

Singleton sees much more when he looks at bonnets like the one Red Bid posed with in this 1908 Edward Curtis Portrait.

He says every piece of head-gear was a kind of status symbol for its owner, maybe a war trophy, or membership in a special group.

They were also like a fancy car in the driveway.

Not everyone could afford one.

"There is ledger art in the exhibit as well as some photography that show headdresses being kept on poles outside the teepee."

Other than prestige, the wearer of headdresses like these could actually take on the powers of a deity or spirit animal.

"The person who wore it would be conferred, they would be given certain powers based on the headdress."

They go back a thousand years.

The first headdresses can be found on cave painting like these from Picture Cave in Missouri.

They show up on buffalo hides and all kinds of Native American art.

The National Cowboy Museum gathered several of their own headdresses, some from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, and the Oklahoma History Center to show off different styles and their many different meanings among cultures.

The first eagle feather headdresses might not have appeared until the 1800's with the Pawnee tribe, but as an enduring symbol there is nothing stronger.

Singleton says, "Headdresses can be found throughout the Americas."

The exhibit is called Power and Prestige: Headdresses of the American Plains.

It's on display through May 14, 2017.

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