Split horn bonnets were "worn only by the bravest of the brave; by the most extraordinary men in the nation", as stated by artist George Catlin who visited tribes in 1834. Lewis and Clark were told by Mandan Indians to ensure a victory during a battle, they would have their bravest warrior wear their sacred ermine headdress, knowing the enemy would flee from the battle, helpless against so much power. There was a risk involved when the bonnet was brought onto the battlefield that their headdress might be captured and its power used against them.
This Nez Perce headdress shows signs of being made about 1790-1800. Nine 3/4-inch flat, plain brass buttons adorn the red broadcloth brow band, above pony bead edging. The smoked, elk skin cap is sinew-sewn using four, pie-shaped wedges. Eight tiers of sinew-sewn ermine, cut into 1/4th inch strips, were wetted and twisted. Red wool and a few hackles are sewn or tied to ermine strips for color. At the sides are four holes tied with thongs to secure the split and polished buffalo bull horns. Colored hackle feathers embellish the horn bases and their tips. A sinew bridle string of blue and white pony beads secure the horns. A mother-of-pearl star sits at the top the bonnet. The construction of this sacred horn bonnet involved perhaps several years of preparation to gather, through trapping or trading, approximately two hundred ermine. This bonnet's power was also believed to be from yellow buttons representing the Sun and the Thunder Being using blue fluffs as Thunder and red-colored wool and hackles as Lightning.
James A. Hanson, noted fur trade scholar, provided information that brass buttons became available about 1750 and were traded by many companies. The brass buttons on this cap possibly came from a Connecticut firm whose main trade was manufacturing brass gears for clocks. The green and red silk ribbons were traded from France and also cock or hackle feathers in colors of red and white. This implies the Nez Perce dyed the blue feathers and perhaps the red fluffs, now faded. The star-shaped shell on the cap came from China. Such shells were used by Chinese to inlay wooden trunks.
Ermine were admired by tribes due to their bravery and tenacity. Although scarcely a foot long, it might challenge a grizzly and it was witnessed that an eagle snatched a weasel from the ground but the bird soon fell during flight after its neck was bitten. Ermine are trapped in the winter in regions when its hair turns white to match snow-covered ground. In summer this small mammal has tan hair and is called a "weasel". The fine, winter hair of the ermine was sought by Western tribes to adorn horse gear, clothing and sacred objects. The Shoshone tribe presented an ermine tippet to Meriwether Lewis, which he described as the most beautiful jacket he ever saw. The high demand for ermine, difficulty to find and trap, led its skins to be a sign of wealth. Sacagawea gifted William Clark two dozen ermine tails at Christmas of 1805. European royalty and prelates of the church sought ermine for trim on their coats. Two dozen ermine were worth a horse. Of the few existing split horn bonnets, few have the volume of ermine skins or unique early construction as this headdress. Noteworthy on this bonnet is the absence of tails on any ermine.
The grandson of the original owner is shown wearing the headdress around 1895, possibly in Oregon. Brass buttons are visible along the brow band.
Larry Belitz, Plains Indian Material Culture Consultant
September 24, 2014 (Printed in Whispering Wind, an Indian hobbyist magazine)