Recently a friend of mine decided to sell the antique Indian headdress she kept in a Perspex box in her house. I was baffled by this decision as it was a thing of great beauty and she did not need the cash. But she had made up her mind: she was moving house and the headdress had to go.
I asked how she had acquired it in the first place:
“My grandparents picked it up at a train station in the 1930s,” she said. “They used to travel around the South West and the Indians would come to the platforms to sell things. So they bought the headdress. They probably didn’t pay much for it, either.”
It was, apparently, a Navajo war bonnet, a headdress of great symbolic power. War bonnets could only be worn by individuals who had performed brave deeds in battle, and they also conferred protection upon the wearer. Since this example contained at least thirty feathers, its original owner must have been an exceedingly brave man. And yet at some point his descendants had been reduced to such destitution that they had surrendered this sacred object for a couple of bucks. Such was the esteem in which Indian culture was held in those halcyon days of yore.
Anyway, since I know a little about antiques, and a lot about obscure and unusual things, my friend asked for help in placing a value on the bonnet. “I saw one on eBay going for $1800,” she said, but otherwise she had no idea.
I spent a few hours online searching different auction websites for prices. But soon I noticed something curious. I couldn’t find any old headdresses- only replicas made by living artists. A shiny, new war bonnet made out of fluffy turkey feathers by a 35-year-old Navajo single mother went for $400-700. But what about an ancient one that may have actually been worn into battle against the nefarious White Man, or an enemy tribe? Surely that would be worth a lot more…
Since information was hard to come by, I sent an email to the man who runs the Austin auction house, complete with pictures attached: “What do you think this headdress would fetch at auction?” I asked.
“Is the artist’s name written on it?” he replied.
“It’s not a replica,” I answered. “My friend’s grandparents bought it a long time ago.”
“Is it made of eagle feathers?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Is that important?”
“Yes- selling eagle feathers is highly illegal,” he replied. And then he sent me a link to an astonishing story about a man named Leighton Deming who had owned Geronimo’s headdress. It had been in his family for five decades. Then, after trying and failing for twenty-five years to donate it to museums he had decided to sell it for a million dollars. Eventually Mr. Deming found a buyer, but when the day came in October 1999 for money and feathers to change hands, it turned out that the buyer was the FBI, and that he was at the center of a sting operation. Suddenly surrounded by 10-12 agents wielding M-16s, Mr. Deming was informed that selling eagle feathers was a federal crime punishable by five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. Geronimo’s headdress, meanwhile, contained 48 golden eagle feathers.
Mr. Deming pointed out that since Geronimo had received the headdress as a gift in 1907, the bird had been dead for many years- definitely since before the sale of golden eagle feathers was declared illegal in 1962.
But that made no difference, the legal reasoning being that people who own a damaged headdress might be tempted to restore it by cheekily plucking fresh feathers from a living (and endangered) eagle’s behind. Although he thought this reasoning was absurd, Mr. Deming did not want to dedicate years of his life to a legal fight and plead guilty to a lesser charge of “unknowing bartering,” for which he received a six-month suspended sentence.
The next time I was in my friend’s house I compared the pictures of a golden eagle’s tail feather s in a book with those in the headdress. They looked the same to me. The sale was canceled.
Now when I started to tell you this story, I thought the moral was going to be about the unintended consequences of well intentioned but poorly written laws. Looking back, however, I can see several morals and there may be a few more in there that I’m not even aware of. I’ll leave it to you to extract the one you like most.
I would like to say this, however: if you’re ever in the states don’t go selling any antique Navajo war bonnets until you’re absolutely sure they don’t contain eagle feathers.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.