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  • This Is Progress?Surveying a Century of Native American Stories about Hair
  • Diana Lopez Jones (bio)

For more than a hundred years, the marketplace has regularly seized upon and repurposed the most famous feature of Native American womanhood: her hair. In the beginning, however, references to Native hair were made within the context of stories told by and for individual bands or tribes. Stories referencing hair were therefore told within a closed social circle for the purpose of preserving tribal identity and reinforcing the values and norms of the group. For example, pre-1900 references to hair in the legends of the Akimel Au-Authum establish the value of hair in terms of deep spirituality, power, and awe. As events transformed life for Indian cultures west of the Mississippi, however, the need to exchange stories in a closed social system for the purpose of preserving cultural or group norms became less urgent, and indeed, federal policies of assimilation and termination thwarted, even prohibited, the telling of such stories. As the link between the story and its cultural roots faded, so too did the link between head hair and its cultural and spiritual significance.

Despite efforts to acknowledge and preserve the connection between Native hair and its cultural and spiritual value through autobiographical or historical accounts, the influence of the larger marketplace has, over time, carved out designated channels for stories involving Native American hair—thus diverting or distorting much historical narrative. In the literary market for today’s children, images of Native hair seem to fall either into saintly representations, typified by the long straight braids of a mother figure like Sacagawea, or sexual representations, idealized by the abundant black tresses billowing magically about the face and shoulders of a cartoon character like Disney’s Pocahontas. Thus, representations of Native American hair have undergone a sea change: where traditional Native stories once vested hair with deep cultural and spiritual significance, the marketplace of popular literature now forces stories of Native hair into [End Page 143] two distinct categories: stories bearing the burdensome darkness of historical fact or stories bathed in the blissful, though false, light of pure fiction.

Sacred References to Hair

Although storytelling has often been a customary part of many Native American cultures, Native literary texts have frequently been offered as oral histories, which tend to establish the peoples’ relationships with each other and with the larger world around them (MacKay). Historians and scholars sometimes label these stories “indigenous knowledge,” referring to “local knowledge that is unique to a culture or a society and outside of the formal educational system … knowledge derived from one’s cultural community, including everything from one’s understanding of history and art to one’s relationship with the natural and scientific worlds” (Cantú Sánchez). Because indigenous knowledge is a key component of cultural identity, Native American stories have often centered on tribal culture, its origins, its history, and its influences. Moreover, these types of stories reinforce the cultural identity of the group because the repeated act of telling the story itself generates enough goodwill and social glue to ensure that the cultural values and norms of the tribe continue for at least another generation.

Personal modesty has been a trait historically encouraged by many tribal cultures in North America.1 As a result, a concept of individual self-worth based on personal beauty was rare, and hair generally played a very minor role in the oral histories of tribal people. This is not to say, however, that tribal cultures placed no value on head hair. In fact, some tribal cultures in the Southwest revered head hair as an integral component of a unified body and spirit (Nez 46). Moreover, this perspective led directly to the belief that hair was sacred, even powerful, because it held the essence of the person to whom the hair belonged. Perhaps because of the spiritual awe surrounding head hair, it is rarely mentioned in pre-1900 tribal oral histories and legends, and when head hair is mentioned, it is mentioned in the context of reinforcing the cultural identity of the group as against their enemies.

One of the few documented legends highlighting the role of head hair...