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 Treuer 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.


Little Wound & Kicking Bear (pub by Univ. of OK)

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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  1. Posted September 25, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    This is an article demonstrating how long hair among Native Americans would help them be better warriors and develop almost a sixth sense.

  2. Fisher
    Posted July 1, 2015 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    You are right. Cutting hair was a way to strip people of their culture, and was not only done to Native Americans, but to Asians of various backgrounds as well. It was used as a method of control and forced assimilation.

    My paternal grandmother grew up on the Nez Perce reservation from 1930 to 1946 – she is the second youngest in her family. When I can get her to tell me about her childhood, some of the stories are sad examples of oppression. Her brothers all had to cut their hair, none of them were allowed to speak anything but English, and the girls were not allowed to wear their hair in braids, only in buns. One of my great aunts had her braids cut off by a teacher.

    My father and his siblings did not suffer this luckily. Today, most of my family wear their hair long, except for my dad (he can’t – he’s actually allergic to his hair oil – he has severe asthma.) I wear my hair long, but my brother doesn’t because of the prejudice he faced when we were growing up. (He actually told me he can’t wear it too long or too short because then he looks ‘too Native’). Some of my friends constantly ask me to cut my hair, as I’m getting older and ‘mothers shouldn’t have long hair, it doesn’t look good.’

    Thanks for pointing out the fact that wearing long hair isn’t exactly just a fashion choice, but something that we choose to keep close to our culture and beliefs.

    • Posted July 7, 2015 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      Fisher, thank you too. It is important that people like you continue to share stories like this and their ties to your Native culture.

  3. Summer
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I cut my hair because my great grandmother passed and did it for her honor . But I’ve been getting bullied , getting called a boy.

  4. Posted March 23, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    whats the different meanings of native men having long hair vs native women

    • Posted March 28, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Cheyenne, thanks for your question. The “meaning” of long hair to Native men vs. women is unclear. This can vary by culture, or not vary. In some cases, long hair may have no more meaning than it does for a non-Native person. As the author of this topic points out, meaning can be found in tradition, spirituality, identity, personality, and/or individuality, regardless of heritage, and not all Indians have worn their hair long. So, while long hair is significant for some people or cultures, there is also wisdom in not assuming long hair means anything specific to any one person or group. Hope this helps.

  5. Marjorie Bahm
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    My grandson’s mother is Dine. She will not cut his hair & he is 18 months old now. She says she will cut his hair when he starts talking. Is this a Dine tradition to wail until the babies start talking?

    • Posted March 17, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Marjorie, thanks for your question. One of our Navajo staff members shares that it is traditional not to cut a child’s hair until they are talking. Dine traditionalists say not to cut a baby’s hair (it’s their wisdom) until they can say a word/talk. Traditionally, girls are not to cut their hair until their puberty ceremony.

  6. Posted May 6, 2019 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    Very informative document, though as my bloodline runs into the Lakota tribe I didn’t appreciate the opening few words, when you referred the Native American as Indians.
    Indians are from Asia not Canada, North and Central America’s.

    • Posted May 13, 2019 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Adam, thanks for your note and for sharing your personal preference. We certainly appreciate the difference in the references. Over the years, we’ve asked our tribal partners on the reservations whether they prefer Native American, American Indian, just Indian or Indigenous. Their answers invariably differ person by person,so much so that we wrote a blog about it:

  7. J
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    As Cat [Stevens] says,
    “I feel the POWER growing in my hair!”

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