This object analysis was conducted for the Spring 2016 course Ethnohistory of the Native Northeast. Students are studying Native American objects in the Penn Museum collections by combining close material analyses (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with other forms of evidence: textual, photographic, historical, and ethnographic. In many cases, the objects we’re studying have little to no provenance data. So, we are seeking out similar objects, reaching out to consult with Indigenous cultural experts, and considering non-material evidence, such as community identity, memory, oral traditions, and other Indigenous knowledges that might illuminate these objects. By sharing this research via social media, we hope to recover object histories, and draw links among museums, archives, and Native communities, in ways that can encourage broader cross-cultural conversations outside of the Museum.
Investigating the Origins of a Turkey Feather Headdress
Object Analysis and Report for Ethnohistory of the Native Northeast
by Danielle Tiger
This headdress, identified by the Penn Museum as an “Eastern War Bonnet,” features an array of turkey feathers sewn directly between a buckskin band and green cloth backing. The feathers are inverted from a Western Plains headdress orientation, bending forwards when worn instead of backwards, so they will stand upright and flare. Stitches to keep the feathers in place can be seen going directly through the feathers and cloth.The headdress measures approximately 57 inches from the center to each end, 114 inches in total length. The main piece is light brown buckskin, with a red cloth border around its edges; it is widest in the center and tapers off to a fixed, thinner width on either side. It shows signs of repair, in sections where the original red cloth has worn away and been replaced. Overall, it is stiffened with cardboard and lined with green cloth on the backside, with additional beige cloth behind the wider centerpiece.
The beaded floral designs feature depictions of leaves, flowers, and a star in the center, in colors ranging from white, blue, red, green, and yellow. Pieces of paper or fabric patterns are visible under several designs showing outlines of the beaded shapes. Overall, the beading is mostly symmetrical, with certain instances of asymmetrical coloring or extra shapes. The center beading has a border of two lines of white beads surrounding the central shapes; the longer edges feature alternating patterns of leaves and lines, with leaves facing center. In some areas, the beads are raised, reminiscent of 19th century Iroquois (Six Nations Haudenosaunee) beaded objects with leaves and floral patterns.
When looking for more comparative photos, I uncovered references to both the Kickapoo Medicine Company and the Oregon Indian Medicine Company. These companies were similar to Wild West shows of the same era, putting Native peoples on display and selling patent medicines. The Kickapoo and Oregon Indian shows were actually based in the Northeast, and there are reports of Mohawk people working in these shows. Photos from each company show a Native person wearing a similarly long, feathered headdress with a widened center piece tapering down towards the edges, with beadwork and inverted feathers all along. These examples suggest that this object may have been used in these shows or for other entertainment purposes.
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) has a similar headdress, identified as part of a “Man’s Outfit” owned by Chief George L. Nelson of the Rappahannock tribe. Even though Nelson owned the piece, curators have identified it as Iroquoian in origin. This headdress is made of hide, cotton cloth, feathers, and glass beads; the band is largest in the center, tapering off towards the edges, with various beaded designs in white, blue, red, green, and yellow. When looking at historical images of Nelson wearing the headdress, the feathers sit upright in the same fashion. The photo of Chief Nelson was taken taken at the 1927 Nanticoke Powwow, indicating that this headdress and clothing were worn as tribal regalia in a Native context.
A third comparison can be found in a catalog for the Improved Order of Red Men (IORM), a fraternal society of white men who assumed the dress of Native Americans. Often the regalia used by the IORM was made by Native artisans, although the exact tribe is rarely specified. The outfit owned by Chief Nelson matches the “Delaware” regalia offered for sale in the 1911 De Moulin & Bros. Company catalogue. After examining the images in Gerry Biron’s book A Cherished Curiosity, it becomes apparent that many Native people wore upright headdresses and outfits that seem to come straight out of the De Moulin catalogue. Interestingly, these headdresses appear to be especially popular for Native participants in the “Medicine Shows” or “Wild West Shows.” This is where it becomes confusing—is this style of headdress “authentic” or (when it comes out of a catalog) is it a “costume pieces?” Does it depend upon who is wearing it and their intent?
When I researched the provenance of this piece, I found that the Penn Museum identified it as having been collected “by or for Rodman Wanamaker c. 1910” and then given to the Museum as a gift in 1938. Rodman was the son of John Wanamaker, owner of department stores in Philadelphia, New York City, and Paris, France. He sponsored three expeditions during the early 20th century to record the so-called “Vanishing Indian.” During the 1908 and 1909 expeditions, photographer Joseph Kossuth Dixon took photographs and staged several silent films. The 1913 expedition, titled the “Expedition of Citizenship,” consisted of carrying the American flag to many different Native reservations in order to have tribes sign a declaration of allegiance to the flag and to the United States. Prominent chiefs were encouraged to dress in their showiest regalia, even if they normally wore ordinary clothing at home. Several museums, including NMAI, attribute their Rodman Wanamaker collections to this 1913 expedition. Perhaps this headdress was part of a costume provided or acquired during that time?
Overall, it is difficult to say with certainty what purpose this headdress was made for originally. There is no reason to suggest that this was a “War Bonnet,” the name it is called by the Penn Museum, since there is no record of it having been worn into battle, and nothing like it appears elsewhere in any warlike context. Nor is it a traditional Haudenosaunee gustoweh, a type of headdress that is markedly different from this style of upright feathers. Comparisons might be drawn between pieces like this used in Wild West and Medicine Shows and pieces worn by historical figures. The floral motifs are similar to what is sometimes referred to as the “Niagara Floral Style” (seen at Niagara Falls in the mid-1800s), but this piece is likely later. Overall, the beadwork designs, the feathers, the construction, and even the paper patterns, are typical of other headdresses known to have been made by Haudenosaunee bead workers. According to Gerry Biron, the central five-pointed star, along with the leaves and floral patterns, identifies this as a Mohawk style of beadwork; he believes this piece dates to around 1900. Whether this headdress was worn by a particular person for tribal gatherings, for a fraternal organization, or for entertainment in a show, I believe it can be concluded that it is a Native object, illustrating Native aesthetics, made by Native hands.
• Russel Lawrence Barsh. “An American Heart of Darkness: The 1913 Expedition for American Indian Citizenship.” Great Plains Quarterly, 13 (Spring 1993): 91-115.
• Gerry Biron. “The Iroquois and Wild West Shows.” Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork Blog.
• Richard W. Hill Sr. “Patterns of Expression: Beadwork in the Life of the Iroquois” In Dan L. Monroe ed. Gifts of the Spirit: Works by Nineteenth Century and Contemporary Native American Artists. Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum, 1996.
• Ruth B. Phillips. Trading Identities – The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900. University of Washington Press and McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998.
• Linda Scarangella McNelly. Native Performers in Wild West Shows from Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney. University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.
For an overview of the Feather Headdress study in the Ethnohistory of the Native Northeast class, see:
• Margaret Bruchac: “Considering the Feather Headdress” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, April 2016.