Legends: Kill the Indian, Save the Man

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Photo by John N. Choate.

In many native cultures throughout the Americas, hair is the physical extension of one’s thoughts, ebbing and flowing with the commiserations of the thinker. Curly hair might indicate a person who contemplates the spiral of life, braided hair signifies a unified perspective and cutting hair – only done when a loved one has passed – severs a train of thought and symbolizes grief. Cutting hair is considered a humiliating act of “spiritual castration” — one that the United States government has a long history of committing.

The dark ages of the US government’s assimilation policies began in the 1870s and the phrase “kill the Indian, save the man” dictated that Native Americans be relocated to off-reservation territories. Native American kids were taken from their families and brought to boarding schools to convert to Christianity and assimilate into American society. The first thing to go was their long hair. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs stated, “The wearing of short hair by the males will be a great step in advance, and will certainly hasten their progress toward civilization.” Long hair on boys and men was seen as so offensive and un-Christian that the Bureau of Indian Affairs called for all Native American males to cut their hair in 1896.

This obsession with Native American hair continued into the Vietnam War era, when it was rumored that the FBI dedicated hundreds of pages of extensive testing to the power of long hair. Native American trackers were said to have been drafted into the war effort because of their “supernatural tracking abilities”, but after the men were given crew cuts in training, they began making mistakes and performed at a lower level than the government expected. Men pointed to their loss of hair as the culprit. None of this has been proven, but there still exists a faithful subgroup of theorists that believe Native American hair to be so powerful that the FBI conspired to keep this story hidden from the public. Perhaps the trauma of being symbolically severed from this stronghold of their cultural tradition alone was enough to impair performance.

Today, the way Native Americans wear their hair continues to be contended in the school and prison systems as well as in the workplace and military. In August, a five-year-old Navajo boy from Texas was turned away from his first day at kindergarten because his long braid broke dress code. He was allowed to attend the following day after his mother provided documentation of his Native American status. In Arizona, prisoner Darrick Gerlaugh became the first Native American to receive the sweat lodge and pipe ceremony as his last rites before execution. He was also allowed to wear his hair in braids.

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