Long Hair

American law

( – promoted by navajo)

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. According to the court:

Long hair is part of Arocha’s religious beliefs. He wears his hair long, as he did as a young child before he was forced to cut it for school-an experience he describes as “unsettling.” His grandfather wore his hair short, but his uncle wore his hair long and in one or two braids. As an adult and over time Arocha came to find religious meaning in wearing his hair long as he gained greater understanding of his grandfather and uncle’s teachings.

Source: http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/op…

The Texas case is only the latest in a long history in the struggle for the right for Indian men to wear their hair long.  

Federal Government Policies and Actions:

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. One Army lieutenant wrote:

“All energies were bent to compel the adult males to cut their hair.”

In 1902 the Bureau of Indian Affairs told all reservation agents:

“You are therefore directed to induce your male Indians to cut their hair.”

According to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

“The wearing of short hair by the males will be a great step in advance, and will certainly hasten their progress toward civilization.”

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.

Indian Schools:

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:

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.

Traditional Apaches believe that the only time one should cut one’s hair is when a relative dies. In 1993, the Wickiup, Arizona schools refused to allow a traditional Apache boy to attend classes be¬cause he has a long braid. Among the Akimel O’odham, people traditionally cut their hair after the death of a loved one. However, the Phoenix, Arizona school system in 1997 did not allow students from the Gila Indian community to attend school unless they cut their hair. Neither of these cases were challenged in court.


During the past 50 years, part of the battle for American Indian religious freedom has involved the prison system. Not only are the prisons a tightly controlled environment, but there is an attitude that conversion to Christianity is good for the prisoners and that Native American religions are not valid.

In 1972 in Minnesota, an Oglala Lakota inmate at a federal prison refused to allow his hair to be cut because of a religious vow and was punished for this refusal. The Court found that the prison’s regulations about hair length were reasonable and questioned the petitioner’s sincerity of belief.

In 1974, the U.S. District Court issued a Consent Decree – a binding agreement between the Nebraska correctional system and the Indian inmates – that provided the precedent for determining how Indian spiritual and cultural needs were to be met within the prison system. Under the Consent Decree, Indian inmates were entitled to wear their hair long and in Indian style as a religious right.

In 1975, Jerry Teterud (Cree), an inmate of the Iowa State Penitentiary, challenged prison regulations that prohibited long braided hair, contending that such a prohibition violated his freedom of religion, as well as his freedom of expression. The Courts found for Teterud and noted that it was sufficient to prove that long hair was rooted in religious practice, rather than being the central tenet of Indian religion.  

A federal court ruled in 1983 that Washington state correctional authorities cannot cut the hair of Indian offenders in the reception units.

In the 1985 Florida case of Shabazz versus Barnauskas, an Indian inmate charged that prison rules regarding hair length violated his religious freedom under the First Amendment and under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. The Court ruled that the state’s need for penal security outweighed religious freedom.

At the 1998 Annual Conference of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences in Albuquerque, a number of Indians leaders called for more consideration for religious freedom for American Indians who were in jail. Indians leaders reported that some states required Indian prisoners to cut their hair which is a form of spiritual castration.


In 1999 Arizona, Akimel O’otham prisoner Darrick Gerlaugh was the first American Indian prisoner in Arizona to receive the sweat lodge and a pipe ceremony as last rites before his execution. In addition, he was allowed to wear his hair in braids for the execution.

1 Comment

  1. I would like to know if the boys from the northern Arapaho Wind river reservation were allowed to wear long hair in 1960, and all details on the Arapaho school and life from 1950 to 1962.
    I am writing a book that start in the wind river and I am trying to know what was the life in the reservation.
    Thank for your help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.