Headwear of Native American Cultures

The hairstyles and headwear of the Native American tribes and the indigenous peoples of the Subarctic and Arctic are many and varied. Styles differed from tribe to tribe, and within tribes due to gender, age, and social status. There were several thousands of specific styles of hair or headwear but also some general trends that could be found throughout different tribes across the continent.

General hair care

Hairdressing was very important among most Native American tribes since the beginning of their civilization. Men and women washed their hair with plants such as soapwort or yucca. Hair was shined with animal grease, or fat, and was sometimes colored or decorated with colored clay. Brushes were carved out of wood or made of bundled grasses, stiff horsehair, or porcupine hair. Men often plucked their facial hair, although the men of the Aleuts in the Arctic and the tribes of the Northwest, as well as some others, did wear beards and mustaches to keep their faces warm.

Although many tribes favored long hair, hair was cut short in some tribes, especially when mourning the death of a loved one. The hair cut from one person was often woven to the hair of another, making their hair even longer. Buffalo and horsehair was also used to lengthen a person's hair. Long hair was worn loose or twisted and braided into many different styles.

In general, men had more elaborate hairstyles than women. Among the Plains Indians, for example, women wore their hair loose or in two long braids, but men had many more options, wearing their hair long, in braids, or shaving the sides to leave a ridge of hair in the middle to create a style called a Mohawk, or roach. Men of the Omaha tribe shaved their heads to create a variety of different styles. Some of these styles included a single tuft of hair on the top of the head, several tufts of hair in spots on the top, sides, and back of the head, and long hair on one side of the head but shaved bald on the other. To create specific styles, such as the uplifted pompadour style worn by the Crow men of the Plains, Native Americans stiffened their hair with a variety of plant extracts, animal grease, or mud. For the pompadour style Crow men slicked sticky plant extracts on the front portion of their hair and combed it into a tall arch on top of their head. In the Southwest men often cut their hair to shoulder length, but both men and women twisted their hair into a bun at the back of their head called a chongo. This bun was shaped like a figure eight and held in place by string tied around the center of the eight. Young women of the Hopi tribe in the Southwest twisted their hair around circular bands to create a style that resembled butterfly wings on the side of their heads.

A variety of hair ornaments were added to styled hair. The Plains Indians attached beaded bands, bull's tails, feathers, and rawhide strips wrapped with brass wire and decorated with dentalium shells, or long tubular shaped white shells, and beads. Sometimes otter, mink, beaver, or buffalo fur was wrapped around long braids.

Covering the head

For the most part, Native Americans went bareheaded. Most often their elaborate hairstyles were decorated with simple head-bands or ornaments. However, headgear was important for ceremonies and cold or rainy weather. Both men and women in the Northwest wore large woven hats to protect them from the rain. These hats were often painted with designs or woven in shapes to identify the social status of the wearer. Men of the Haida tribe, for example, would wear tall, wide-brimmed hats woven of spruce tree roots with rings added to the top for gifts given at ceremonial feasts called potlatches. In the winter many Native American tribes, and especially those living in the Subarctic and Arctic, wore fur caps.

The most recognized headgear of Native Americans was the feathered headdress. Originally worn by warriors of the Plains tribes, the headdress became popular among other tribes as well.


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

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

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