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Historian 04-09-2009 02:28 PM

Scalp Feathers
According to a statement in 1954 by Les Redleaf, one of the last Southern Ponca Chiefs before his death in 1955 at age 89,

“...among the Ponca, these feathers had once indicated that the wearer had taken a scalp or scalps.”
(Howard, 1976, p. 6)

According to other Ponca men in the Hethuska Society such as Henry Snake, Sylvester Warrior, Abe Conklin, and Paul Roughface, the general opinion was that the tradition of wearing a pair of scalp feathers represented the perked ears of a wolf, always alert to danger.

In addition, the Ponca are said to have had at one time, specific decorations and specific feathers used to designate family kinship ties of the wearer, in a similar fashion to the way tartan kilts designate Scottish clan lineage. (Issac Williams, Ponca, 1985)

In yet another explanation, according to Ponca elder Henry Collins, the two scalp feathers represented two Lakota Chiefs who led an attack on the Poncas. The Ponca were victorious in battle against the Lakota, and in honor of the two Lakota Chiefs the Poncas wore two eagle feathers off the sides of their roaches.

Today, the scalp feathers worn by straight dancers consist of two medium to large feathers, usually from the same bird. Matching right and left feathers from the right and left wings or the right and left sides of the tail are preferred by today’s standards.

The feathers are beaded or otherwise decorated at their base, and the blade of the feathers can be decorated by trimming, notching or gluing small bits of fur or downy feathers to them.

In “The Ponca Tribe,” Dr. James Howard describes the scalp feathers by stating,

“...most dancers wear two plumes falling over the eyes in front, or slightly to the side of the head, and two buckskin thongs with small pieces of silver crimped around the thong at regular intervals, suspended from a beaded or German-silver disc.”
(Howard, 1965, p. 62)

While in “The Osage Ceremonial Dance I’n-Lon-Schka,” Alice Callahan simply states that,

“The scalp feathers are worn dangling from the side of the head, fastened in the hair.”
(Callahan, 1990, p. 112)

If a braid of hair is used to attach the hair roach headdress, the scalp feathers are fastened to the braid first, before attaching the hair roach. If thongs or strings are used to attach the hair roach, the scalp feathers are tied to a thong as close as possible to the base of the hair roach, so that the scalp feathers stick out from the crest of the head at an angle.

There has been no definitive agreement as to “which side” of the head the scalp feathers should appear, as old photos taken in the early 1900s show dancers with scalp feathers on one side or the other. It would seem that among the Ponca Hethuska personal preference now dictates the decoration as well as the placement of the feathers.

Among certain Osage Inlonshka members, it is believed that the scalp feathers, also known as clan feathers, are worn on the left side if a non-Veteran and on the right side if a Veteran. (Tim Tallchief, Osage, 1987)

However, although original meanings have faded, scalp feathers remain one of the few items of a set of straight dance clothes which traditionally are only worn if given to a dancer as a gift by a family member or other dancer.

It is worth mentioning that in Dr. James Howard's work titled, “The Ponca Tribe,” he makes reference to another hair ornament of a different kind,

"According to Ed Primeaux (a.k.a. Pack Horse, a Southern Ponca Peyote Leader), it was the custom of Ponca peyotists, in the period 1902-1930, to wear a downy eagle plume, dyed red, attached to the asku (a lock of braided hair at the crown of the head), as well as a silver button with two pendant buckskin strings, ornamented with silver and ending in two beaded tassels. This same headdress was sometimes worn, in connection with the roach headdress by Straight Dancers."
(Howard, 1965, p. 68)

Examples of scalp feathers:


Osage man - no date

John Wood - Osage - 1910

Examples of other hair ornaments:

Southern Cheyenne father and son - 1900

Comanche man – 1891

Comanche man – 1898

Albert Atocni – Comanche – 1926

Kiowa men - 1892

Jim Two Hatchet - Kiowa - 1898

Kiowa man - 1898

Raises The Dust - Ponca - 1898

Raises The Dust - Ponca - 1898

Walks With Effort II - Ponca - 1914

Frank Corndropper, Paul Buffalo, and Pierce St. John - Osage - 1895

George Michelle - Osage - 1910

Callahan, Alice A.
1990. The Osage Ceremonial Dance, I’n-Lon-Schka. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK.

Howard, Dr. James H.
1965. The Ponca Tribe. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 195, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Historian 01-25-2010 03:06 PM


Historian 02-20-2012 01:49 PM


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