One enduring image we collectively have of Native American people is their long hair. Even to this day, many American Indians, Mexican Indians, and Canadian First Nations People choose to keep their hair long. (So do many other ancient cultures, including the native Sami of Finland and Sikhs). This is much more than simply an aesthetic or stylistic choice.
Many ancient cultures maintain that hair is an extension of not only the human nervous system but also the soul.
For Native Americans, long hair equates to POWER, VIRILITY, and PHYSICAL STRENGTH. Beliefs and customs do differ widely between tribes, however, as a general rule, both men and women are encouraged to wear their hair long.
- Long hair ties the people to Mother Earth, reflecting Her long grasses. Hair is a connection to all things. It is also a physical manifestation of the growth of the spirit – a highly developed extension of the nervous system, a type of “feeler” which transmits important information and energy to the brain stem, neocortex, and limbic system deep within the brain.
- The belief has long been held that when one’s hair is cut, they lose a small aspect of their unique relationship with themselves.
- The Navajo, for example, traditionally and ceremonially cut their children’s hair on their first birthday, and thereafter let it grow unimpeded.
- Among many Native American Nations, braided hair represents the union with the infinite (or The Creator). Free-flowing hair represents the freedom of Life.
- Hair symbolizes the strength of community: single strands are weak and easily broken, whereas a braid of many strands together is strong.
- During the period of forced assimilation of many Native American people in the USA and Canada in the 1800s, the governments of these countries forced the indigenous people to assimilate, and they removed children to off-reservation boarding schools. There they were forced to abandon their traditional clothing, languages, and their long hair. Cutting the hair stripped the people of their culture and identity, enforcing the dominance of the white government. Even today, some schools and workplaces do not allow long hair on any boys or men as part of their grooming codes – including Native Americans.
- While preparing for tribal ceremonies, much care is taken in grooming, styling, and the ornamentation of hair, and these are guided by the traditions and values of the family and the tribe, as well as creative self-expression. This includes potentially wearing one, two, or three braids; painting the hair; or adornment with beadwork, feathers, fur, silver, or other items.
- Braiding one’s child’s hair represents nurturing and intimacy. It is also common in pow-wows to see tribal members brushing and braiding each other’s hair.
- Touching the hair of another without permission is considered to be disrespectful, and even asking permission to do so is taboo, particularly for the hair of children and elders.
- Many tribes cut their hair while grieving the death of an immediate family member, or to signify a traumatic event or a major life change. Cutting the hair at these times represents the time spent with the deceased loved one and it’s ending; it can also represent a new beginning.
- Cut hair is never thrown away by Native Americans – this is considered to be disrespectful. Instead, it is treated with the respect it deserves: ceremonially burned with sage or sweetgrass, releasing the hopes, prayers, thoughts, and dreams of the owner to the Creator.
Just as Native American jewelry, blankets, and art are hugely significant to tribal culture, so too is hair intrinsic to cultural identity. It is sacred to who Native Americans are as individuals, families, and communities. Long hair promotes self-respect and esteem, a sense of belonging, and much pride. Hair is a physical extension of hopes, dreams, thoughts, prayers, aspirations, history, and experiences. It is sacred.