The Significance Of Hair In Native American Culture

There are many teachings and practices in our tribal cultures that are significant to who we are as Native people. One of many things important to our cultural identity is, our hair. Our hair is considered sacred and significant to who we are as an individual, family, and community.

In many tribes, it is believed that a person’s long hair represents a strong cultural identity. This strong cultural identity promotes self-esteem, self-respect, a sense of belonging, and a healthy sense of pride. As part of the practice in self-respect, we are taught to take good care of our hair through proper grooming. In preparation for ceremonies, we take great care in the grooming, styling, and ornamentation of our hair. Our hairstyle and ornamentation are guided by the values of our family and tribe. It is a form of creative self-expression that reinforces our connection to our family, tribe, and Creation. Some tribes will use two braids, while others will use three. Some families will paint their hair depending on the ceremony or their family’s distinction. Women and men will adorn their hair with fur wraps, woolen wraps, feathers, fluffs, and bead work for war dancing and ceremonies.

How we relate to our hair is a constant reminder of our connection to our culture and a distinct worldview grounded in the sacredness of relationships. Braiding a child’s hair is the beginning of establishing an intimate and nurturing relationship. My mother used to braid my little brother’s hair every day before school. When my grandfather died, my mother cut my brother’s hair. She expressed the sadness she felt because she could no longer sit with him and braid his hair. It was a special time of bonding for the two of them.

At pow-wows, it is common to see family members and friends brushing and braiding hair for each other. It’s a beautiful way to bond and a powerful way to reinforce the sacredness of relationships. There is a teaching about the symbolism of the braid, itself, that reaffirms this practice. It is said that single strands of hair are weak when tugged on, however, when you pull all of the hair together in a braid the hair is strong. This reinforces the value of the family and tribe along with our connection to all of creation.

When I was about 5 years old, my grandfather first told me about being forced to cut his hair when he was carted off to boarding school, and I am sure I heard this more than a dozen times as I grew up. But as I got older, he would tell me more about his experience and what it meant to him. Eventually, he told me his hair was cut in an effort to strip him of his culture and identity. Cutting his hair was their way of showing dominance over him through forced assimilation. He said that every time his hair was cut, he would cry, and every time he would cry, he would be physically punished. Unfortunately, being forced to cut our hair was a common practice in many institutions and schools across the country, and is still occurring as recent as 2018.

His story is important because we are taught as children that we don’t cut our hair unless we have experienced a significant loss, like the death of a close family member, traumatic event or significant life change. Tribes have different teachings about the value of hair and how to care for it. In our family, we are taught that our hair is a physical extension of all our thoughts, prayers, dreams, aspirations, experiences and history. When we cut our hair, it represents the end of something that once was and a new beginning. When we do have to cut our hair, it is never to be thrown away, but rather, burned with sage or sweetgrass in a ceremonial way. When our hair is burned, all of our thoughts, prayers, dreams, aspirations, experiences, and history rise to the Creator to be properly taken care of. We are then guided in the direction for our prayers to be answered. Throwing our hair away is a form of personal disrespect. So, when my Grandfather had his hair cut off and thrown away, his tears were of deep grief, confusion, helplessness, and shame. It was against everything he had ever been taught, along with grieving the loss of everything his hair represented to him. When this cultural practice was common in most Native communities, it was easy to recognize when someone in the community was grieving or experiencing a significant change in their life, because their long hair was no longer.

With our hair embodying so much of who we are, boundaries are important. Touching someone’s hair without permission is disrespectful in the Native community. Some even find that asking permission is a form of disrespect, especially with children and elders. This is not something to take personal, it’s our way of protecting ourselves from the energy of someone we know nothing about.

Does your family or tribe have special teachings about hair? We would love to hear and learn from you.

Photo Credit: Esperanza Califas Tomeo
Child in photo: Willis Tomeo

Older Post
Newer Post


  • Hello,
    I want to thank you for writing this insightful blog. I had to cut my hair last year after I severely damaged it with blonde hair dye. It is barely past my ears now. I am a white woman. I have never had thick long hair (most white people have this problem and I think it is a curse and bad genetics) I also never have much confidence. I am deeply upset and grieve for you because my race has caused such grief by forcing hair cuts and I am deeply and truly sorry for all the loss and heartache and pain and tragedies that your people (and other races and other cultures) have had to endure. Some of us do have good hearts and we do not want to be associated with the race of people who cause so much destruction. Please do not see all of us as evil. If I could sacrifice my life to erase the wrong actions of my ancestors, I would do it. That is not possible so all I can do is ask you to teach others how to make your lives better now. If you are native and you are reading this, please share your life and experience and stories and history with the world so that we can learn how to respect you and how to live in peace.

  • My great grandmother was full Cherokee who married a white man. My grandmother always told me I took after her and the older I get the more I see it. I remember my great grandmother very little. I remember her long grey hair with very few black strands still left in it that hung in a long braid. I remember when she passed away my grandmother cutting her hair and never letting it grown back out. After she passed away none of the traditions were carried out anymore; except for me. I’m 39 and have long black hair and carry her skin tone as no one else in the family has. In todays world the first thing everyone asks me is “Do you have extensions in your hair?” When I tell them no, then they will reach to feel of it. I pull back, because my hair is sacred and I don’t like it touched. At all! Thank you for pointing that out so others are aware that it is disrespectful.

  • How do can I properly take care of my hair and groom it? My family is from the Cherokee and Apache tribes. We’re not really close to our traditions but I would love to learn how to take care of my hair properly. If anybody can help that’ll be very much appericated.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Close (esc)

We're working on a big announcement! Check back often for more information and exclusive offers!

Get ready to Embrace Your Roots, Love Your Hair

Age verification

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now