Bear Grease

Indians across North America smeared bear grease, or bear fat, and other oils on their hair to make it shine. Similar substances for smoothing and shining the hair were raccoon fat and deer marrow, a material found inside bones. Both men and women of the Delaware, Huron, and Sauk tribes of the Northeast smoothed bear grease onto their hair daily. The Plains Indians also shined their hair with bear grease and used other oils soaked with herbs to perfume the hair. The Crow Indians of the Plains took special pride in their long hair. They used bear grease or buffalo dung to stiffen curls they made with a heated stick, and they also applied cactus pulp to make their hair shine. Men of the Dakota Sioux shaved their heads bald with the exception of a tuft left on top of their head, which they coated with a mixture of red ocher (a type of reddish clay) dye and bear grease to stand the hair on end. The Pawnee stiffened their roach, or Mohawk (a ridge of hair sticking straight up, running down the center of the head from the forehead to the nape of the neck), with grease and red paint. Of all the Plateau Indians, only the Kutenai men stiffened their hair to stand on end with bear grease or buffalo dung. The tribes of the Northwest, including the Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, and Nootka tribes, used so much bear grease and red ocher on their hair that it was hard to see the hair's original black color. In the Southeast as well as in the Subarctic and Arctic, many peoples, including the Pacific Eskimo, slathered their hair with grease and oil and painted it red for special occasions.

Bear grease was not used among tribes in the Southwest or California, but these Indians did other things to beautify their hair. Some blackened their hair with various recipes, painted their hair with red paint at the part or the ends, painted white horizontal stripes on their hair, or wrapped their locks into elaborate styles with ties, including the figure-eight shaped bun called the chongo, which was a popular style among the Indians of the Southwest.


Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Hofsinde, Robert. Indian Costumes. New York: William Morrow, 1968.

Hungry Wolf, Adolf. Traditional Dress: Knowledge and Methods of Old-Time Clothing. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Co., 1990.

Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

[ See also Volume 2, Native American Cultures: Mohawk ]

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