When we think of Native American clothing, we often picture colorful, feathered costumes. Although some Cherokee may have worn feathered headdresses to show off for tourists, their ancestors did not. The spectacularly colored feathered costumes seen at Pow-wow’s and Native American festivals or dances are based on ceremonial costumes worn by the Plains Indians that were made popular in the early Wild West shows and, of course, in Hollywood movies.
In ancient times, Cherokee men might pull their hair through a short, hollow deer bone and attach beads or a feather or two to the bone.
In his wonderful book, “The Cherokee People”, Thomas E. Mails described the “ordinary Cherokee men”:
“… In winter, it was common for men to wear either an otter-skin headband or an oter-skin cap that was slightly conical in shape and had a front appendage of white opossum hair dyed red. The brim was cut almost round and was decorated with loops or disks made of lead.
“… [they] wore belted skin robes that were fashioned from the tanned hides of bear, deer, otter, beaver, and mountain lion, and winter moccasins made of beaver skins. Other male garments consisted of long-sleeved, hip-length hide shirts; tubular-style, fringed hide leggings that had no seat to connect them and were secured to the belt by means of straps; and breeches-like hide breechclouts. The breechclout consisted of two formfitted aprons, one in front and one behind, that were tied above the hips to the same narrow buck-skin belt that held up the leggings, and which extended halfway down to the knees. The aprons were tied together at the man’s sides, and the middle of each apron was drawn up between the legs until the two ends could be tied together with thongs. When necessary, the thongs were untied for hygienic purposes. The breechclouts were often dyed, and in the case of the war leaders, were a vivid red. A colorful, broad–woven belt with tasseled yarn ties, made by female finger weavers, was worn over the breechclout, and from this belt at the right side was hung the knife and sheath and at the front by means of thongs, a midsized, painted buckskin pouch that was used to carry miscellaneous items such as smoking tobacco, pipes, flint, bullets, patches, mending supplies, glue sticks.”
John Howard Payne, who travelled among the Cherokee in the mid-1800’s learned that “in more ancient times, Cherokee men wore beards that seldom exceeded six inches in length. Some men let their beards fall loose, but others plaited them, with one braid hanging from each side of the mouth and one from the chin. The mustache was either pulled out or trimmed to where it did not hang over the mouth.”
Mails described the women’s dress:
“Women wore short, sleeveless, close-fitting deerskin dresses and used fishbone needles to sew them together with deer sinew. The dresses were belted at the waist with broad, woven belts and fastened at the bosom with hasps or broaches made of bone. There was also a hide handkerchief that was worn around the neck and tucked down into the bosom. A bell was attached to the handkerchief. Under the dress was a petticoat that was woven or knitted from wild hemp. This extended down to the knees and had a long fringe tha reached the ankles. Women of status were permitted to weave colorful beads and feathers into the fringe and into the body of the dress itself. Women wore no leggings but had deerskin moccasins that were made like half boots, came up to the knee, and had small bells attached at the ankles. These bells worn by the women tinkled as they walked and filled the air with soft music.”
A lot changed after European colonization. After a Cherokee delegation sent to Europe was encouraged to cover their tattooed heads with muslim-like turbins, it became a hit with Cherokee men back home. But the feathered headdress of the Plains Indians never caught on with the Cherokee.
by Courtney Miller
author of "The First Raven Mocker"