For many Native Americans, hair tells a life story

For many Native Americans, hair tells a life story
Navajo woman helping her husband braid his hairgrandriver/Getty Images
  • In Indigenous cultures, hair holds a significant purpose.
  • Different hairstyles can signify important moments in life.

Across cultures around the world, hair holds different meanings. In African American history, as a product of the transatlantic slave trade, braided hair came to serve as everything from a means of storing and hiding food to a way of sending secret messages. In ancient Greece, hair length and styles separated people by class and place of origin. And in some Indigenous cultures, hair is believed to be an extension of the self, as well as a connection to the world.

Sporting long hair, or growing out hair, is a custom for some Native tribes. For some tribes, long hair equates to strength. In others, it signifies power and virility. Long hair is also seen by some to be an act of rebellion against the colonized world and a representation of Indigenous pride.

"People usually start to grow out their hair when they're beginning their spiritual journey and reconnecting with their culture and their tribe," Whisper Bissonette, an Indigenous hairstylist, told Insider. Whisper is a member of the Oglala Lakota and Anishinaabe Ojibwe tribes, where long hair sometimes represents honoring a loved one who has passed away. Whisper said that her mother has kept her hair long to honor her grandmother's life.

A tie to old and new life

Hair has a deep tie to old and new life across tribes. In Native culture, a widespread belief is that when someone's hair is cut, they lose a small part of their relationship with themselves. In the Navajo Nation, hair is cut to mourn death in the immediate family. The cut hair represents the time that was once spent with loved ones and the new growth represents life after. "From my personal experience, the person who has passed away, whatever they mean to you, that's the amount of hair that you cut," Whisper said. In some tribes, cutting off hair may signify a traumatic event or a major life change. It could also represent parting with past actions and thoughts, as a way to start anew.

There are several other reasons for cutting hair aside from mourning. In the Apache tribe, haircutting ceremonies are held every spring to welcome health and success. Meanwhile, the Navajo tribe cut their children's hair on their first birthday and let it grow out, trim-free, thereafter. Across some Indigenous cultures, cut hair is considered sacred and is never thrown away. Instead it is saved or ceremonially burned with sage or sweetgrass.


Aside from long hair, braids are a common style sported by Indigenous people, but the reason goes beyond aesthetic purposes or styles preferences. "Across all tribes, pretty much, we all have the belief that the three strands in a braid represent the body, mind, and spirit," said Whisper, noting that hair overall connects you to Mother Earth.

Battling a colonized world

"When Indigenous people say that we walk in two worlds, which is our world and modern colonization, having long hair represents that you're carrying that part of you with you throughout everything that you're doing," said Whisper. Her younger brother has been growing out his hair for nine years, to honor their grandmother who survived a Catholic-Indian boarding school and was forced to cut her hair.

In the mid-nineteenth century, off-reservation Indian boarding schools, or residential schools, were founded to eliminate traditional American Indian ways of life and replace them with white, Eurocentric culture. Native children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and Christian churches, where they were forced to cut their hair, learn Christianity, and let go of their traditional clothing, names, and even language. Lasting up until 1969, in order to "kill the Indian, save the man," off-reservation boarding schools subjected Native children to sexual abuse, exploitative labor, death, and punishment that erupted a longtime fear of expressing Native identity.

Even in modern society, Indigenous people are still battling a colonized world that punishes displays of expression, from banning feathers on graduation caps to prohibiting donning a Navajo traditional bun at a high school varsity basketball game.

"It comes from the indoctrination of colonization in our society and being forced to cut our hair. We all pretty much carry that trauma down generations of having to cut our hair and look a certain way that was never meant for us," Whisper said. In a culture where hair has been a symbolic ode to identity and spirituality, Indigenous hairstyling is more than an aesthetic – it's a sacred preservation of history.