Across The U.S., Native American Hair Is Subjected To Culture-Erasing ‘Grooming Policies’

A closer look at an age-old issue.

Dave & Les Jacobs/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Native American woman with long braid and ringed jacket

Who would consider a 1,000-plus year-old hairstyle to be a passing fad? The concept sounds ridiculous at face value. Long hair, braids, plaits, and twists existed in the Americas long before any European arrival, and are some of the most enduring cultural touchstones across the continent’s near-600 distinct tribal nations. It’s an undeniable and obvious reality — or rather, it should be.

Discriminatory policies and practices targeting Native American schoolchildren and workplace employees are far too widespread across the country, effectively acting as tools of forced cultural assimilation that, for many, are all too familiar echos of the United States’ now-infamous, government-sanctioned violence against its Indigenous population. Institutions often disguise restrictive, heritage-stripping rules as dress codes, using sweeping, exclusive language to sanction hair cutting and shaving. In one recent, high-profile instance, a Waccamaw Siouan first grader was told to chop his long hair, couched as a stand against “faddish” styles.

As the conversation around hair-based racial justice grows, many are ready to illuminate just how marginalized and outright policed Native American hair remains in the U.S.

The Historical Context

For Dr. Suzanne Cross, associate professor Emeritus at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work and Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe citizen, the intersection of culture, hair, and the discriminatory practices surrounding them is both a professional and personal matter. She emphasizes that while it is impossible to generalize across the hundreds of completely culturally distinct tribal nations, hair is often simultaneously spiritual, religious, and reflective of the wearer’s life. Even the act of styling is steeped in tradition, with who braids one’s hair given great importance as well. Men and boys usually bear the brunt of hair-based harassment or policing both now and historically, she says, but women wearing styles like Spiritual Braids are targets as well. “The Spiritual Braid is often [worn] during Powwow dancing or ceremonies, but some wear it to school, they just leave it in,” Dr. Cross explains.

A young girl of the Kiowa Comanche dance group, photographed at the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, in Gallup, New Mexico.Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Length is particularly meaningful. Dr. Cross says that hair is often cut after a death, a way of mourning and honoring the just-lost. Therefore, long, unshorn hair can confer good fortune — the wearer hasn’t experienced that grief recently.

Much of Dr. Cross’ research and work is around government- and church-ran American Indian boarding schools, a notorious and particularly dark chapter in U.S. history. First established in the mid-1600s as a means of forced assimilation and so-called “civilization,” the schools and their administrators focused on re-education and shaping young Native American children into an approximation of European-ness.

Part of why Dr. Cross first became interested in the subject is because her own mother was enrolled in one of those institutions, and was subjected to maltreatment from the day she arrived. One of the first things done there, she tells TZR, are haircuts, which were issued under the guise of delousing. Her mother was given a close-cropped bob, a short chop seen in images taken at those schools. “There are all kinds of photos with real, real short hair, just cropped above their ear or chin-level, when it was really long — you have to understand, it was really long. But anything to keep them from being ‘heathens.’”

Esau Prescott, of the Ho-Chunk Nation, with a short hair cut at boarding school in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, 1915.Wisconsin Historical Society/Archive Photos/Getty Images
American Indian children at boarding school in Kickapoo, Kansas, date unknown.Corbis Historical/Getty Images
American Indian students at a boarding school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, circa 1885.Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Abuse was regularly intersectional, too. Dr. Cross says that colorism was in play at these institutions, with individuals with darker skin tones and larger body types targeted over their lighter peers, classmates, and even family members. “They did not want [the students] doing anything they considered Native,” she explains.

Modern Injustices

Black-and-white photography can make the atrocities of the past seem fully rearview. But as many Native American and Indigenous parents and students know too well, the 2020s are rife with injustice and rampant intolerance that harken back to the dark legacy of those institutions. Restrictive grooming policies at modern schools and workplaces often disproportionately affect men and boys, on whom long hair or even simply more intricate styling defies traditional Eurocentric gender roles.

Jennesa Calvo-Friedman, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, explains that hair discrimination is particularly notable because it often occurs at an intersection of identities, namely race, religion, and gender simultaneously. “[These school policies] say boys need to look like boys, and to them, in order to look like a boy, you have to have short hair.” Those restrictive stereotypes are harmful, she says, with the grooming policies sending a message to students that they have to look and be a certain way to be accepted and allowed. “[It says] you have to perform your sex and your gender in a particular way in order to belong.”

Marlene Grey Bear, a citizen of the Standing Rock Tribe, braids the hair of her son, T.J. Good Nature, as he gets ready for the 41st Annual Denver March Powwow in 2015.Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post/Getty Images

That’s exactly what Ashley Lomboy and her son Logan were told by the board at Classical Charter Schools of Leland in North Carolina (formerly known as Charter Day School). Logan’s long hair, a symbol of resilience and strength in the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe of which they’re members, Lomboy says, was worn pulled back into a bun throughout kindergarten and most of first grade to comply with the institution’s grooming policy. Then, the school informed the family that it would have to be cut. “He’s always loved his hair, it’s just a part of him — it’s a part of his body, literally, ” Lomboy tells TZR. “It gives him power, it gives him confidence, and just being an Indigenous Waccamaw Siouan boy, it’s a connection to his culture.” At Powwows, Lomboy says, his hair is as much part of his regalia as his Roach, or traditional headdress.

School officials shut down several attempts from Lomboy to explain the significance of her son’s long hair, citing reasoning that Logan’s upswept bun was simply part of an ongoing man-bun “fad.” The dissonance of a thousand-year-old hairstyle deemed a passing trend was, of course, not lost on Lomboy, who also runs a STEM program for Waccamaw Siouan youth. In fact, when she delivered a rousing speech at a school board meeting, she emphasized that the very facility in question was, in fact, built on traditionally Waccamaw Siouan lands. “‘You are on Waccamaw Siouan land, telling a Waccamaw Siouan boy he can’t be who he is,’” she recalls. “How dare you?”

It extends far beyond just the classroom, too. Lomboy cites another incident from November 2023 in which an Elder member of the Independent Oglala Lakotah Nation in Colorado had his waist-length hair cut without his permission while hospitalized. While men are often more visible targets of hair-based discrimination, it touches all genders. Currently, the Albuquerque Public Schools district is engaged in ongoing litigations over allegations that a high school teacher took scissors to a female student’s braid during class.

What The Future Holds

Hair-based discrimination, of course, is a far-reaching issue. Because of how frequently Black students are targeted for natural and protective styles and lengths, activists in the community have helped draft legislation designed for protection. Many Americans know about the introduction of The CROWN Act, for example, which prohibits discrimination based on the person's hairstyle — if it’s commonly associated with a particular race or national origin. The legislation is law in some states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington) but that doesn’t mean there aren’t loopholes already being exploited. Calvo-Friedman cites one incident in Texas, for example, in which a Black male student wore long locs to school. It was argued that while the actual style was protected by The CROWN Act, its length was not.

An American Indian man adjusts his long hair in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2017.Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Still, the legislation is making strides toward some semblance of true equality. Calvo-Friedman says motions like The CROWN Act can help refocus how society views hair. It’s deeply racially imbued — and therefore subjugated — the same way skin color is. It’s individuals like Lomboy, too, who are reshaping a national response to a prejudice older than the United States. She’s spoken with Native Americans from across the country in the wake of her son’s issue at school, recalling a moment when a woman from North Dakota told her that Lomboy inspired her to fight for her own child’s rights against discriminatory policies. Now, Lomboy says, that woman’s son is growing his hair out, too.

After working with the ACLU to lobby the school board for changes to their restrictive dress code, Lomboy pulled Logan out of the facility. Now, he’s at another local institution in which he’s thriving and his hair is as long as ever. “Logan wears his hair down when he wants to, he wears his hair in a braid when he wants to,” Lomboy says. Her son says, there, everyone loves his long hair.