Native American hairstyles? (historical)

In the popular media, we often see males of the Eastern Woodland nations wearing what James Fenimore Cooper called “scalping tufts” – shaved heads with a little hair on top, or “Mohawks.”

However, portrayals of males of the Plains nations tend to show them with loose, free-flowing hair. (Except for the poor Pawnee. In Little Big Man and in Dances With Wolves, their shaved-head villainy contrasts with the flowing-haired Hollywood-hero Cheyenne and Sioux.)

How true is this stereotype? Males of the East shaving their heads, but everywhere else letting it flow.

Also, since popular legend says that American natives learned scalping from Europeans, was there a time (pre-contact) when no natives of any region used the shaved-head style? Is the “Mohawk” a European import, like the horse, smallpox and coffee?

Finally: In the popular media, do shaved heads tend to correlate with depictions of native villainy? (I have only two examples for the Pawnee, unjustly maligned in film as the “bad” natives.)

I think most of the Eastern Woodland tribes wore their hair shaved or short for practical reasons. If you’re in the forest, with a lot of branches sticking out, you don’t really want long, flowing hair.

This sounds a little bit like the popular legend accounting for the extinction of Megaloceros, the Irish Elk: “Ireland was at one time so heavily wooded, that the giant elks caught their antlers in the branches, so they couldn’t flee from hunters.” :slight_smile:

bumping this up in hopes of more replies, and to avoid falling off the front page

Most photos that I have seen of real Native Americans had them with the dual ponytail look:

I can’t say whether that’s a plains only, mid-to-late 19th century only look, or if it was more widespread geographically and historically. There’s no reason to think that hairstyles can’t have changed periodically.

Hollywood tends to avoid haircuts that look sort of lame by modern standards, unless its a minor character. I would recommend looking through Google Images rather than trusting to movies.




The Commanche pictures are all from the 19th Century or early 20th Century. I’m not sure about the rest, apart from the pictures of Ben Campbell and Harvey Pratt.

Speaking only for the southeastern People, my People (Creek and Seminole) and Cherokee, men shaved or cut short the hair on the sides of the head, leaving a shock down the middle. This was the case pre-contact and then soon thereafter. Only males involved in medicine and elders wore their hair long. Something caused a change and by the 1700s men wore hair long, and free, tied or braided. Those of us now with long hair typically braid our hair for formal or significant events. We traditionally wear one braid, not two as do the Plains people. Traditional young woman typically wear their hair braided. Older women and married women may wear their hair tied back or loose. I hope this helps.

There were some early illustrations included in 1491, by Charles C. Mann. From what I recall, heads were shaved except for a patch of long hair on one side or the other. I don’t remember if a particular tribe was being portrayed, or if the European artist bothered to label it in the 1500s.

I appreciate all the responses, but I am especially excited to receive a reply from an actual indigenous American! Are there any more American native Dopers who wish to share something about their people?

Serious question: Do you know how your great and great great grandfathers (and mothers!) wore their hair?

I can’t speak for CateAyo, but it is possible that one could receive that knowledge from family oral tradition, or perhaps from the collective records/archives, oral or written, of the Nation referred to. (There were some references to present-day practices, too.) Also from written sources, from either European or Native people who closely observed the customs of the Southeast.

Southeastern natives did attract much commentary, early on, from Europeans who were amazed at the orderly civility of their “farm towns.”

Heh…we used to have a Doper named zev, who refused to believe that anyone could know anything about the past unless it was directly experienced. He would say something like, “How do YOU know what happened before you were born? Ha! Textbook knowledge!” I would reply to him, “Your problem isn’t with me, it’s with Ken Burns!”

Not that this refers to anyone I have encountered recently on the Boards. :slight_smile:

I have a book well written on the cultures and life of the plains Indians. It is called Mystic warriors of the Plains. Written by Thomas E. Mails. In it he says a plains Indian would consider the shaved head an act of cowardice as it did not allow for the enemy to take his scalp in battle. Further he says hair styles were widely varied, but did follow certain prescriptions. In general it was very well cared very long and was thought to be directly related to their soul. No one ever saw a bald Plains Indian. I am a sculptor and have a great intrest in the Native cultures. In order to depict them in their proper historical accuracy I study detail issues such as this very closely.

There is no factual answer to the main question, because there was neither a single Eastern Indian people nor a single fashion amongst any people.

  1. There were any number of Indian nations at any given time.

  2. The boundaries changed rapidly all the time. The people living in an area in 1642 were almost never related to the people living their in 1742, and the people in 1742 almost never related to the people in 1792.

  3. Hair fashions change rapidly for all people at all times. I can’t think of anywhere in the world where hairstyles were uniform for 400 years.