Native American Hair Dressing

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Native American Hair Dressing – Many tribes had a distinctive mode of cutting and dressing the hair, and the style occasionally suggested the nickname by which the people were called by other tribes, as, for instance, in the case of the Pawnee, who cut the hair close to the head, except a ridge from the forehead to the crown, where the scalp-lock was parted off in a circle, stiffened with fat and paint, made to stand erect, and curved like a horn, hence the name Pawnee, derived from pariki, ‘horn’. The same style of shaving the head and reaching the hair was common among eastern and western tribes, who braided and generally hung the scalp-lock with ornaments. The Dakota and other western tribes parted the hair in the middle from the forehead to the nape of the neck, the line, usually painted red, being broken by the circle that separated the scalp-lock, which was always finely plaited, the long hair on each side, braided and wrapped in strips of beaver or otter skin, hanging down in front over the chest. The Nez Percé of Idaho and neighboring tribes formerly wore the hair long and unconfined, falling loosely over the back and shoulders. In the S. W. among most of the Pueblo men the hair was cut short across the forehead, like a “bang,” and knotted behind. The Eskimo wore the hair loose.

There was generally a difference in the manner of wearing the hair between the men and women of a tribe, and in some tribes the women dressed their hair differently before and after marriage, as with the Hopi, whose maidens arranged it in a whorl over each ear, symbolizing the flower of the squash, but after marriage wore it in simple braids. Aside from these ordinary modes of hair dressing there were styles that were totemic and others connected with religious observances or with shamanistic practices. Among the Omaha and some other tribes the child from 4 to 7 years of age formerly had its hair cut in a manner to indicate the totem of its gens; for instance, if the turtle was the totem, all the hair was cut off close, except a short fringe encircling the head, a little tuft being left on the fore head, one at the nape of the neck, and two tufts on each side; the bald crown above the fringe represented the shell of the turtle and the tufts its head, tail, and four legs. Generally speaking, the mode of wearing the hair was in former times not subject to passing fancies or fashions, but was representative of tribal kinship and beliefs.

The first cutting of the hair was usually attended with religious rites. Among the Kiowa and other southern Plains tribes a lock from the first clipping of the child s hair was tied to the forelock (Mooney). Among many tribes the hair was believed to be closely connected with a person’s life. This was true in a religious sense of the scalp-lock . I n some of the rituals used when the hair was first gathered up and cut from the crown of a boy s head the teaching was set forth that this lock represents the life of the child, now placed wholly in the control of the mysterious and supernatural power that alone could will his death. The braided lock worn thereafter was a sign of this dedication and belief, and represented the man s life. On it he wore the ornaments that marked his achievements and honors, and for any one to touch lightly this lock was regarded as a grave insult. As a war trophy the scalp-lock had a double meaning. It indicated the act of the supernatural power that had decreed the death of the man, and it served as, tangible proof of the warriors prowess in wresting it from the enemy. The scalper, how ever, was not al ways the killer or the first striker. The latter had the chief credit, and frequently left others to do the killing and scalping. ” With the Eastern or timber tribes, the scalper was usually the killer, but this was not so of ten the case among the Plains Indians. The scalp was frequently left on the battle ground as a sacrifice. Among the Dakota a bit of the captured scalp-lock was preserved for a year, during which period the spirit was supposed to linger near; then, when the great death feast was held, the lock was destroyed and the spirit was freed thereby from its earthly ties (see Scalp). There are many beliefs connected with the hair, all of which are interwoven with the idea that it is mysteriously connected with a person s life and fortune. One can be bewitched and made subservient to the will of a person who be comes possessed of a bit of his hair; consequently combings are usually carefully burned. According to Hrdlicka the Pima, after killing an Apache, purified them selves with smoke from the burnt hair of the victim.

Personal joy or grief was manifested by the style of dressing the hair (see Mourning). Young men often spend much time over their locks, friends assisting friends in the toilet. The Pueblo and Plains tribes commonly used a stiff brush of spear grass for combing and dressing the hair, while the Eskimo and the N. W. coast tribes used combs. A pointed stick served for parting it and painting the line. These sticks were of ten carefully wrought, ornamented with embroidery on the handle, and kept in an embroidered case. Perfumes, as well as oils, were used, and wisps of sweet-grass were concealed in the hair of young men to add to their attractions. The Pima and Papago paint or stain the hair when it becomes bleached by the sun (Hrdlicka in Am. Anthrop., viii, no. 1, 1906), and the former, as well as other tribes of the arid region, often coated the hair completely with river mud to destroy vermin.

Early French travelers in Texas and other Southern states mention a custom of the hostess to hasten to wash the head of a visitor with warm water, as a sign of good will and welcome. Among the Pueblo Indians the washing of the hair with the pounded root of the yucca plant prior to a religious rite was attended with much ceremony, and seems to correspond to the purification observances of the sweat lodge, which always preceded sacred rites among the tribes of the plains. See Adornment. (A. C. F.)

MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. Web. 18 December 2014. - Last updated on Jul 18th, 2012


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