beyond braids: the true story of indigenous hair

Indigenous hair is at once a contemporary expression of identity and a sacred continuation of history.

by Braudie Blais-Billie
23 June 2017, 3:00pm

i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture, and the times we live in.

For decades, popular culture has propagated imagery surrounding Native Americans that's painfully reductive. There's the "noble savage" with his long, feather-accented hair and stoic stare out onto the horizon, the Pocahottie wearing a buckskin minidress and two thick braids, and the uncivilized warrior Indian terrorizing cowboys with a unruly locks. Even today, a quick Google search of "Native American hairstyles" will land you in the territory of "tribal-inspired" appropriation and cringe-worthy stereotypes.

But like the languages, traditional clothing, cooking styles, and belief systems that vary incredibly throughout indigenous communities across the country, so does the way Natives wear their hair. Though historically distinct from nation to nation, it's safe to say that indigenous culture as a whole has a special relationship with hair.

From birth to death, hair is respected as an intimate extension of the self as well as a connection to the world. Of course, the specific powers of hair vary from tribe to tribe—for the Navajo Nation, hair is traditionally only cut in circumstances of mourning, while the Apache peoples hold haircutting ceremonies each spring to ensure health and success.

Seminole Indians, along with many other nations, believe that hair must be protected and out of reach from those who will use your hair against you with bad medicine. Before the 1950s, Seminole women traditionally wore their hair in a board style, which is a large, front-facing bun wrapped around a cloth-covered cardboard cutout, to keep it out of harm's way. Of course, tribal customary 'dos are reserved for social occasions in contemporary society. But even with ombrés and fade cuts, the politics of hair and indigenous identity are very much alive and well.

Many indigenous men still wear their hair long. Julian Brave Noisecat, a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen Nation and a journalist/activist who writes for The Guardian, Jacobin Magazine, and Fusion, sees his long hair as a proud symbol of resistance.

"Growing out your hair—particularly as a Native man—is an expression of cultural and political pride and defiance against a brutal history of forced assimilation through boarding and residential schools where our grandparents were incarcerated, forced to cut their hair and become white," Noisecat tells i-D. "It's a subtle way to flip the bird to the white men who tried to kill and assimilate our ancestors—kind of like black folks who choose to grow out an afro or keep their hair natural."

Indian boarding schools (also called residential schools in Canada) were institutions established in the early 20th century as a way to "kill the Indian and save the man." Native children—often referred to as "the stolen generation"—were literally ripped out of their homes and brought to schools where they were given Christian names, forced to learn a foreign language called English, and were forcibly assimilated into mainstream American culture by cutting off their hair. The brutal, non-consensual establishments were rife with sexual abuse, exploitative labor, death, and instilled a legacy of fear for expressing Native identity. Because the last Indian boarding school was shut down as recently as the 1980s, it's easy to see the poignancy of long locks for communities still reeling from cultural genocide

Still, indigenous peoples face discrimination for their hairstyles. In recent years, there have been many instances of children being sent home from school because of their long hair. A team of Navajo basketball players in Flagstaff, Arizona were prohibited from a game because they wore their traditional women's tsiiyéél buns. Native people even have to fight high school district officials for the right to wear ceremonial eagle's feathers to graduation.

In these circumstances, it's important to acknowledge the practice of indigenous hair as more than a faux-hawk or "tribal-inspired" braid: it's a religious right. For Ojibwe activist and former Native American Advisor to Bernie Sanders Tara Houska, her hair defines her relationship with her beliefs. "Personally, I learned my hair is an outward projection of my connection to the Red Road, a physical symbol representing my spiritual commitment to living mino bimaadiziwin [a set of standards for leading a moral life] and learning the teachings of the Midewiwin [the religion of my Ojibwe community]," Houska writes in an article for Indian Country Today.

And though there are still obstacles to face with unjust prejudice against cultural practices, indigenous peoples are making their mark in fashion and popular culture. One of the most iconic looks in cinema—Princess Leia's double bun—was most likely inspired by the Hopi tribe's traditional 'do, squash blossoms. The squash blossom hairstyle is two loops of hair wrapped around a U-shaped "hair bow" that are tied with special strings made with yarn and human hair. Kendra Van Cleave, a fashion historian with costume accuracy website Frock Flicks, was the woman to point out the tie between the Carrie Fisher character and Arizona-based peoples. According to Van Cleave, the American public was introduced to the look in the early 20th century due to photography. "Many of the arty, bohemian women of the 1920's adopted 'ethnic' fashion as a means of demonstrating their difference from the mainstream [as a feminist statement]," she said.

Osage Indian hairstylist Amy Farid has been a game-changer in New York runway shows. With legendary hairstylist Laurent Philippon as her mentor, she's become the lead hairstylist for Hood By Air and has also worked with Chromat, Calvin Klein, and M.I.A. Farid, who stays connected to her family by returning to Oklahoma annually for a summertime ceremony, uses her access in fashion to educate and stop appropriation dead in its tracks. "I was sitting next to a stylist who works with Alessandra Ambrosio and she was like, 'I was just in Ibiza with Alessandra and she's obsessed with Native Americans. She saw this feather bonnet from Italy and had it shipped over and did a photoshoot with it while wearing a bikini,'" Farid says. "I was just like, you can't use those pictures—you're going to get a lot of negative attention because that is so disrespectful. And she was cool about it."

Indigenous hair is at once a contemporary expression of identity and a sacred continuation of history. It's a ceremonial part of Native life that must be handled with respect and care, whether that's washing it with yucca root before a wedding, braiding the hair of a loved one every morning, or simply getting it out of your face for your grandmother's sake.


Text and photography Braudie Blais-Billie

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indigenous people
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