One of the issues that many Native American men and boys have faced concerns long hair. For them long hair is not a stylistic concern, but is a religious issue. For many Native Americans having long hair is a symbol of tribal religious traditions which teach that hair is only to be cut when one is in mourning for the death of a close relative. The American government, public schools, and prisons have all forced Indian men to cut their hair in spite of the teachings of their tribal religions.
The most recent long hair case involves a five-year- old Lipan Apache boy in Texas. In 2008, Adriel Arocha was denied admission to school because the school policy did not allow long hair for boys. After a two-year court battle, an appeals court finally ruled that the school’s policy regarding hair length was a violation of his religious freedom rights.
During the Dark Age of American Indian religious freedom (1870-1934), the American government insisted that all Indians convert to Christianity and a part of this conversion process required that Indian men cut their hair. Government agents and missionaries found long hair offensive and un-Christian.
In 1871 the Indian agent for the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, who ruled the reservation on behalf of the Presbyterians, condemned long hair as a barrier to civilization, Americanization, and Christianization. At this same time, the Indian agent for the Methodist-controlled Yakama reservation in Washington required all Indian men to have their hair cut.
At the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ordered John Shangreau, a Lakota who acted as an interpreter for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, to cut his hair because he would be representing “advanced Indians.”
Indian agents, in their attempt to “civilize” and Christianize Indians, focused a great deal of attention on the problem of long hair on Indian men. In 1896 the Indian Office (Bureau of Indian Affairs) issued orders for all Indian men to cut their hair.
Under the directive from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian men with long hair were to be denied rations. If they still refused to cut their hair, “short confinement in the guardhouse at hard labor with shorn locks, should furnish a cure.”
For many centuries the Hopi in Northern Arizona had grown corn. The corn depended on rain. Hopi men wore-and many still continue to wear-their hair long as a symbol of the falling rain for which they prayed. In spite of this, in 1904 the Indian agent forced a number of Hopi men to have their hair cut. Among the Hopi, for a man to have his hair cut during the growing season was tantamount to asking that the corn stop growing.
One important part of the government’s program to strip Indian people of their traditional cultures involved boarding schools where young children could be removed from their people and raised by strangers in an institutional setting. The premier boarding school in the American system was Carlisle, which was opened in 1879. The school, situated in an abandoned army post in Pennsylvania, required the students to take Anglo-Saxon Christian names, cut their hair, and replace their clothes with European-style dress (their old clothes were usually burned).
A century later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had completely changed. In 1974 the Bureau issued a statement regarding student rights and due process procedures for all BIA schools. Student rights include freedom of religion and culture, and freedom of speech which includes the right to wear long hair.
Public schools have a well-deserved reputation for being insensitive to American Indian cultures. For American Indian students school policies have prohibited long hair for the boys. While the Texas case found in favor of the Native traditions, this has not always been the case.
New Rider versus Board of Education was a 1973 case in which three Pawnee students were placed on suspension for having long hair in braids. The Oklahoma school’s regulation which prohibited male students from wearing braids was challenged by the parents who felt that the school was violating their children’s freedom of religion. The court’s denied the parents’ claim.
Hatch versus Goerke involved a 1974 challenge to a school’s regulation on the length of hair. The parents argued that the school’s regulations violated their traditional religious values, but the court disagreed.