It's not only political feathers that are ruffled over the Falkland Islands: The Museum of Natural History downplayed the opening of "Brazilian Indian Feather Art" and canceled a reception for the Brazilian president.

But war is no match for art, so damn the torpedoes and observe the brilliantly colored headdresses, ornaments, masks and crowns, on view through the month.

Body decorations by 39 tribal groups show a surprising variety of textures, shapes and colors -- all of a feather. Of the more than 300 works collected since the turn of the century, the bright red tailfeathers of the macaw are most conspicuous. The parrots now are classed as endangered species, and no parts of them may be imported; the problem was avoided by shipping them via diplomatic pouch.

The plumage is attached to headdresses with bark, palm--ree fibers, cane, rope, natural cotton or "city cotton," according to William Crocker, curator for South American ethnology. The featherwork ranges from monumental to dainty, and each tribe's style is distinctive. "Certain tribes would object to the soft feathers as too weak," Crocker said. "Of course what seems weak is a cultural definition." The warriors pictured wearing them are not weak by any definition.

The baubles and bangles include toucan beaks, beads brought in by outsiders, mother of pearl, some manner of tooth, and iridescent beetle wingcovers. There are several "lip plugs," protruding ornaments that fit in a perforation of the lip, and ear pendants that look like the latest from Paris.

The color combinations are most striking: gorgeous blues, bold orange, tropical green, ostrich cream, glowing yellow. Some designs are rich in symbolism of clan, sex, social standing and the cosmos.

Tribal music sets the mood and the colors blaze in the darkened side room, arresting many on their way to the dinosaurs.

BRAZILIAN INDIAN FEATHER ART -- Through May at the Museum of Natural History.