Native Hair Traditions
Updated: May 8
Spectacular Indian Hair Traditions
Native American cultures across the continent have universally regarded hair as a life force and a spiritual source of identity and tradition. Hair was also seen as an important symbol in nature: Plains Indians called tornadoes "storm horses" and believed the swirling wind funnels were their powerful tails. Prairie grass was seen as Mother Earth's hair and many tribes commonly wove grasses within their own hair to honor nature. Some saw the sun and moon as having strands of hair reaching to the earth showering them with rays of light.
An early white explorer and artist named George Catlin was one of the first to depict western Indians visually in their native garb and hair in the 1830s. Catlin traveled to the American West five times in the 1830s, visiting more than eighteen tribes, including the Pawnee, Omaha, and Ponca in the south and the Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet to the north. He also painted tribes near the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, Arkansas and Red Rivers, and in Florida. He painted more than 500 portraits of Native Americans in spectacular regalia and fantastical tribal hair styles that mesmerized white Americans. (See photographs of some of his paintings below.)
Catlin marveled at the exquisite styles of the Native Americans he painted and was impressed by how much attention they paid to their hair. Hair was a source of immense pride and hair care an important daily task that required considerable time and intricate processes.
Various materials and utensils were used: the tail bone of a porcupine was dried with quills still attached for a hair brush; combs were carved from bone, shell, horn, antler, wood, or tortoise shell and were sometimes wonderfully fanciful, depicting animals, trees, or people. Bone or wood disks were sometimes used as structures over which hair was styled.
A variety of greases were used by most tribes as pomades or hair dressing: bear grease, raccoon fat, or deer marrow were most popular. Many tribes, such as the Delaware, Huron and Sauk, pomaded their hair daily with bear grease. Other materials were used to stiffen or style the hair: buffalo dung or clay mixed with pigments from plants or minerals.
A wide variety of herbs and plants were used as shampoos and hair perfumes, too. Cheyenne used wild mint as hair dressing. Yarrow, witch's broom and yucca were some common hair washes of other tribes.
Hair styles differed dramatically from nation to nation. Southeast tribes, such as the Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole wore hair in buns or knots on top of their heads. Seminole women wore a very unique hair "board" in which hair was wrapped over a large disk (made of wood or bone originally, then later cardboard).
Some Plains and western tribes like the Sioux and Blackfoot wore a variety of styles: braids, pompadours (stiffened with bear grease or clay), roach (whites know this style as the Mohawk--white boys in the 1950s and 1960s often sported this cut!), forelocks (like bangs that hung in the middle of the forehead), or shaved heads with only a scalplock, braids or knots piled on top. Flint, obsidian, or sharpened bone were used as razors.
Southwest tribes often wore hair tied in back and twisted in a "chongo," (Pueblo for hair style). Some wore their hair in twisted dreadlock strands. Unmarried Hopi women wore very elaborate hair structures, like "squash blossom" buns or "butterfly whorls," which were wound around a piece of bone or wood (later cardboard).
Dakota men sometimes shaved their heads completely bald except for a scalplock at the top, which they coated with bear grease or buffalo dung and a red ocher clay to stiffen and stand upright. The Pawnee, too, stiffened their dramatic roaches (spiked upright from forehead to the nape of the neck). The Kootenai were one of the few Plateau tribes to stiffen their hair this way. Some Northwest tribes, especially the Coola, Kwakiuti and Nootka, slathered bear grease and ocher or other dyes on their scalp to almost completely cover their black hair.
American white culture and fashion from the 1920s to the present have taken inspiration from native hair styles. In the 1920s, when female flappers were abandoning the stifling strictures of society and fashions, they sought to make radical, anti-establishment statements with their clothes and hair fashions and borrowed hair styles from native and black women. Wearing headbands and feathers was the rage. Again in the 1960s, anti-establishment youth wore long hair, headbands, and braids, inspired from Native American cultures.
One of the most iconic hairstyles in cinematic history, the double-bun of Princess Leia in Star Wars, came from the Hopi tribe's "squash blossom" tradition, according to film fashion historian, Kendra Van Cleave. Today, many top designers, including Calvin Klein, Hood by Air and Chromat labels, have used Osage Indian hairstylist Amy Farid hair art on New York runways.
Many contemporary Native Americans wear their hair in their tribal tradition. And many follow some of the ancestral traditions of hair care, washing hair with yucca root before a wedding, braiding each other's hair as an act of love and bonding; intertwining sweet grass in their braids to show their unity with Mother Earth. And to honor their native forebears.
PHOTOS: (1) Walla Walla woman, Estelle Steel-ye, about 1880. Smithsonian Institution. (2) Painting of famous frontier artist and chronicler of Native American culture, George Catlin. Head Chief White Cloud, Iowa tribe. About 1844. (The painted black hand indicated the chief's prowess in hand-to-hand combat.) (3) Cree Chief Pitkwahanapiwivin with dread locked hair. 1885. (4) Kootenai tribe member with roached hair adorned with feathers (or porcupine quills) and braids. 1920s. (5) Hopi maiden with "squash blossom whorls" (6) Manataka-style hair worn by famous Native actor, Wes Studi, in 1992 movie, "Last of the Mohicans" (7) George Catlin painting of Head Chief Buffalo Bull Back Fat, Blood tribe. 1832. (8) Flathead boy, Two Feathers. Montana, 1915. (9) Inuit woman, Nowadiuk, 1903. (10) Seminole woman with "board hair" (11) George Catlin illustration of Boy Chief of the Ojibwe. About 1834. (12) Cree warrior with "roached" hair spiked with bear grease and pigments from natural materials.
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"Native Hair Traditions" was originally posted June 11, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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