Potawatomi Chiefs" by George Winter, 1837.
The resurgence in positive portrayals of Native American culture
has come with unforeseen consequences in recent decades. A drive
for purity specifically in terms of defining what it means
to be Indian has become a prominent topic of discussion in
places like Oklahoma, where so many tribal nations, cultures and
Thanks in part to a rise in the appropriation of headdresses,
a ceremonial symbol for warriors and leaders typically associated
with tribes from the Great Plains region, it seems that the country
is only one concert or poorly managed publicity stunt away from
debating the famous Native American head adornment. Yet a deeper
question emerges in places like Oklahoma where 39 federally recognized
tribes from across the continent reside; which Indians are allowed
to wear headdresses?
"From New England down to the south, with what became the five
civilized tribes' of Oklahoma after their removal, there weren't
headdresses as we know them. There was feather adornment on head
gear, but very typical headdress that has been seen and portrayed
in Westerns is very plains-centric," explained CPN Cultural Heritage
Center Director Kelli Mosteller, Ph.D.
The mixing of tribal traditions has a long history in Oklahoma.
Indeed, one of the Citizen Potawatomi's most famous members, artist
Woody Crumbo, grew up with members of other tribes. His art and
success as an artist were ultimately influenced by these experiences.
Mosteller sees that drive to label what is pure Potawatomi teachings
from other tribes' traditions as a fairly recent phenomenon.
"People in the early twentieth century were practical. This
is where they lived and these were the people they lived next to.
Teachings, techniques, traditions; you pick up from these places
and people. We as Potawatomi started to incorporate more things
with the buffalo that were down here, because there certainly weren't
a lot running around northern Indiana."
Even Potawatomi bands like the Citizen Potawatomi and the Prairie
Band developed different traditions, dating back to the pre-removal
area. While the former were primarily based in the northern woodlands
on the shores of Lake Michigan, the latter's traditional territories
further west brought them into contact with the plains' tribes.
"When they ended up on the same Kansas reservation together
after the removals, it was two different tribes with different practices
that were occupying the same area," said Mosteller.
Oklahoma's role as the last stop for many North American tribes
provides a study of the impact that intermarriage and close quarters
can have on tribal cultures. Though mixed tribal families in areas
like the Great Lakes aren't uncommon, many tribes in those areas
share common cultural practices. The Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi
are a perfect example.
The diverse geographic origins of so many Oklahoma tribes means
that a child might have a mother who is a descendent from the Potawatomi,
originally from Indiana, and a Cherokee father, whose ancestors
originally lived in mountains of North Carolina. In Europe, similar
geographic distances would likely bring one into contact with two
different cultures, languages and possibly, countries.
Though the Potawatomi did not traditionally use what is commonly
thought of as a traditional headdress, wearing one should be done
with respect for the culture from which it came. Mosteller pointed
out that while disrespect may not be intended, someone from a tribe
who holds such items sacred might not see it that way.
"For someone whose headdress is a sacred item, like the Lakota
Sioux, they may not understand why you were wearing it," she said.
However she also cautioned that even if someone is wearing a
headdress, that doesn't mean they may not have permission or the
blessing to don it.
"There are times when someone is gifted a headdress from a member
of a tribe with those traditions, and they are wearing it respectfully
as a gift they received. You never know a person's story. So the
onus is on the wearer ultimately to be respectful and know why they
are wearing it."
What did they wear?
wearing Potawatomi are seen in
"Council of Keewaunay" by George Winter, 1837.
For the Potawatomi today, their forefathers' headgear may not
be as practical in the Oklahoma summers as it was when the Tribe
resided further north. Turbans made from cloth and before
their near extinction from overhunting, otter and beaver skin
were a common adornment on Potawatomi men in the early years of
European contact. Looking at the sketches of famous Potawatomi chronicler
George Winter, one often sees more turbans than not.
In an 1837 journal entry, Winter described the dress of Jean
Baptist Brouillette, an Indian interpreter who was half Canadian
and half Miami.
Wrote winter, "His tout en semble was unique, as his aboriginal
costume was expensively shewey [sic]. He wore around his head a
rich figured crimson shawl a la turban, with long and flowing ends
gracefully falling over the shoulders."
As noted in historian Robb Mann's "True Portraitures of the
Indians, and of Their Own Peculiar Conceits of Dress, Winter's description
of Broullette's dress reflected what was characteristic of male
dress in the Great Lakes fur trade society.
"Many men wore colorful silk scarves wrapped around their heads
to form turbans and most wore trade silver earrings," wrote Mann.
The ornate dress of the Potawatomi in many of Winter's sketches
indicates that not only were they and their neighboring tribes doing
well during the booming fur trade years, many were also dressing
In her work "Indian Women and French Men," Susan Shepler-Smith
writes the artist's portraits "are the visual evidence of the prosperity
that characterized indigenous communities in the southern Great
Lakes. Nor were the more elegant figures in Winter's portfolio dressed
for ceremonial occasions; theirs was the dress of daily life."
Mosteller pointed out that there are some discrepancies on the
origin of the turban in Potawatomi culture, saying several stories
have been debated in recent years. She noted one version in which
a delegation of Cherokees visiting the eighteenth century court
of the King of England were told to look more presentable by their
English hosts before their meeting. Finding their uncovered heads
unsuitable, the English courtiers found disused turbans left behind
from a previous delegation visiting from the Indian subcontinent.
Upon the successful meeting wearing the turbans, the Cherokees returned
to the U.S., where the cloth turban's popularity grew along the
North American trade routes, with the Potawatomi ultimately catching
up with the trend.
"The thing is, the cloth turban might have happened that way,
but the Potawatomi were already wearing otter skin turbans. Just
looking at it practically, with cloth you don't have to hunt it,
clean it and then wear it. Cloth was more practical," said Mosteller.
Practicality remains a common theme with the Potawatomi today
and their neighboring tribes, wherever they may be. With 32,000
members spread across the U.S. and Canada, it's only natural for
traditions, dress and practices to intermingle.
As with all things, the goal is to remain respectful and cognizant
of the meaning of cultural items one dons.