You Wanted to Know: Why Do Indians Have Long Hair?

Question: Why do Indians have long hair?

Excerpt: For most Indians, hair was only cut under certain circumstances… Many Dine, or Navajo, cut children’s hair on their first birthday and then do not cut it again… Among some tribes, hair was cut as part of tribal mourning customs…You can imagine how it must have felt for many native children to have their hair cut against their will upon entrance into U.S. government-run boarding schools (see page 138).

What is it about long hair that lends itself to be thought of as something uniquely Native American? Even in my own experience I attempted to grow my hair long to be more Indian. It didn’t work. My hair is thick and wavy. Not only does it grow in length, but in width. So much for that long black braid I was dreaming of!

For many of us, there is meaning in wearing our hair long. That meaning can be found in tradition, spirituality, identity, personality, and/or individuality. We all have a relationship with our hair; it doesn’t matter whether you are Native or not. Our hair is a part of who we are – even if we don’t stop to think about it.

On a deeper level, perhaps we do lose a part of ourselves when we cut our hair. It may be that we lose a special relationship with ourselves. Certainly, the above excerpt from the book by Anton Truer highlights the significance between hair and loss. Considering the connection between all things, the physical cutting of hair is a manifestation of the loss of a loved one, a loss of a relationship, and a loss of a part of self.

There may not be a simple answer to the question, “Why do Indians have long hair?” But, as with any culture, there are specific traditions that carry a meaning that is deeply important to that particular culture. In addition, what defines hair as being “long” … I would argue that definition is established through personal and cultural understanding of the lives we live. So who is to say what is “long,” but perhaps that is getting away from the point.

Similarly, to ask “Why do Indians have long hair?” ignores the diversity among Native Americans. The question assumes all Native people have traditionally worn their hair long. It seems that this question is less based in culture, tradition, and spirituality and instead originates from a perspective generated by portrayal of Indians in the popular culture.

Finally, the real distinction as to why the question is asked, even though both Natives and non-Natives wear their hair long, is the history of the United States. Think about “Kill the Indian, Save the man.” How many countless Natives have had their culture away taken by the US government’s boarding school system? Forced haircuts were a part of an intentional process of stripping away culture. Freedom allowed non-Natives to wear their hair long, but took it away from the Native Americans. Today, Indians are free to wear their hair however they want, but how do the scars from the past prevent Indian people from wearing their hair long today?        

Credits:  Treuer, Anton (2012-05-01). Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, published by Borealis Books.

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