Native Americans,  The Cowboy Chronicle,  Western History

War Bonnet!

The old steamer trunk has been in the family attic for generations.  The treasure it holds comes out from time to time to be admired and pondered. Who wore it?   What moments in history did the wearer see and experience? What stories are hidden in this honorary headdress?

Over one hundred years ago the US government opened up a strip of land to homesteaders between the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. There were over 100,000 applicants but only 2500 families won a claim. One of these families was that of Henry and Margaret Lutgen, who established their farm along the path the local Native Americans would take to town. They watered their horses at the Lutgen’s and since Henry was also a butcher he made sure they got the viscera and hides. Henry bought and sold cattle for them and an alliance was formed.  When the family left ten years later Henry was given a war bonnet in honor of their friendship.  The old family steamer trunk became its home.

This was quite the gift. A war bonnet held great significance for the Native American people. The feathered headdress was a symbol of admiration and great respect given to a warrior by his tribe or spiritual leaders.  The privilege of wearing one had to be earned. The war bonnet was rarely worn in battle; generally it was reserved for wear during ceremonies and other formal occasions.  While the picture of a great Indian warrior wearing an eagle feather war bonnet is a familiar and iconic vision often associated with all Native American tribes, in fact only a small number of the Plains Indian people,  such as the Dakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Plains Cree, actually wore them.   The adornment of his headdress and other clothing broadcast a warrior’s rank. He didn’t need to do or say anything; his bravery in battle and rank was immediately known. When a warrior accomplished great deeds he received an eagle feather; a greater number of  feathers signified a braver warrior.

Painting by George Catlin, 1832, of Máh-to-tóh-pa, Four Bears, Second Chief, in Full Dress George Catlin described Four Bears, a chief of the Mandan tribe, as an “extraordinary man … undoubtedly the first and most popular man in the nation… handsome, brave and valiant. The artist painted this portrait at a Mandan village in 1832. (Catlin, Letters and Notes, vol. 1, nos. 13, 21, 1841; reprint 1973) This painting is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum

While war bonnets always had feathers, they could also be intricately adorned with beads, animal skins and other items native to their area. At times a tuft of horsehair would be added to designate additional honor, a coup. There are three types of war bonnets: the trailer war bonnet with a long tail extending to the ground, a halo war bonnet with the feathers fanning out around the face, and the straight- up feather war bonnet.  While in some tribes there were female chiefs or women who engaged in battle, only men were actually allowed to wear the war bonnet.  Surprisingly, women did not even participate in the making of the headdress.

Knowing the great treasure they possessed and that it deserved more than an occasional appearance, the Lutgen family donated the headdress to the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora. It is now on loan and permanently displayed in the first room of the Hall’s museum dedicated to the Plains Horse People, one of the three heritages and cultures the NDCHF seeks to preserve and honor.  This new exhibit was unveiled at the 2018 season opening.

This war bonnet has been authenticated by Butch Thunderhawk.  Mr. Thunderhawk is from a community on the Standing Rock reservation. He spent his youth learning the traditional Lakota culture from his grandparents and tribal elders and then went on to receive formal artistic training.  He teaches traditional tribal arts at the United Tribes Technical College and recreated many items for “Indian Hall”, part of a museum Thomas Jefferson established at his Monticello home. Mr. Thunderhawk was also involved with Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.  In his letter of authenticity he said: “War bonnets were made for a high ranking leader/chief and high ranking war society leaders. … In Lakota society there was an order of rank, only warriors of great honor and achievement earned the right to wear a war bonnet.”

Maybe Butch Thunderhawk’s ancestors traveled down that dusty road to town, watering their horses and getting their cattle and animal products from Henry Lutgen. Maybe the bonds go deeper than any of us realize – the past is full of mystery and stories lost to the passage of time. How fortunate we are to have pieces of history saved in attic trunks to bring us a glimpse of what once was.

Published in:

The Cowboy Chronicle

July 2018


The Dickinson Press, May 7, 2018, Celebrating Western Culture: Cowboy Hall of Fame hosts season premiere by Linda Saller (Authentic Traditional Native American Indian Headdress)

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