Natives Don’t Have Bad Hair Days – Care For Your Braids

By Ruth Swaney on January 28, 2013
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As Native people, we take pride in our hair. It portrays our cultural identity, our values, and our beliefs. In the old days when most of our people wore their traditional hairstyles, there were amazing creations and enhancements. Some were for practicality, others were decorative and others were ceremonial. As I see pictures from long ago, I have to remember that our ancestors were using traditional products of the day and not today’s shampoos, conditioners, mousses, gels, and hairsprays nor curling irons, straightening irons, and blow dryers.

What also amazes me is the volume and color of our ancestors’ hair even among the aged. One lady of our Bitterroot Salish people believed that you should only wash your hair in a flowing stream (usually icy cold year-round) and never in a basin or tub and that would insure long, thick, hair which hers most definitely was. And there are many historic photographs of middle-aged and older Native people who seem to have no gray hair, either!

I’ve come to the theory—and professional hairstylists might agree with me—that part of the reason our ancestors’ hair was so magnificent and stayed that way was that they DIDN’T wash, comb, and fuss with it every day. In addition, the natural products they may have used such as greases and earth based paints actually served to hydrate and nourish it. Keeping the hair braided and wrapped such as with animal furs, strips of cloth or ribbon further protected the hair from dirt and damage.

I was watching an infomercial for the product Wen. It’s a pretty simple pitch: Don’t use shampoo on your hair because it will dry it and that leads to dullness and breakage. By the way, hair that keeps breaking at the root will weaken the follicle until—here it comes—the hair that is produced has no pigment, and in other words, is white or gray.

Over the years I’ve been in awe of how powwow dancers can produce perfect hairstyles that can last through sun, wind, rain, and of course, dancing. It helps that most Native people, especially powwow dancers, have abundant hair. But it takes much skill and practice to correctly fashion it whether for males or females. Look around the next powwow and you’ll see dozens of hands deftly braiding. Some people can do their own, like my daughter, who has enough hair for three people I swear. And some have to rely on others to get the smooth, tight, stay together look that is the crowning glory of the perfect regalia.

Beginning in the 1980s, French braids emerged as a trend for female dancers and I myself wore them because I had a short, layered haircut. Today we are seeing a return to the more traditional styles and more women and men are growing their hair long and keeping it that way.

Whatever style you’re using for powwow dancing, it probably requires hair products of some kind. The list of favorites based on my un-scientific survey is:

  •   O.B., a 40-something woman with long, thin hair swears by Vaseline. Not one hair gets out of place when you use that, trust me. It’s also good for boys because they usually don’t like girlie products like gel or hairspray.
  • N.K., a 30-something woman with medium length, layered hair uses Aussie Instant Freeze hairspray. She claims this will stand up even to the wind in Browning, MT.
  • R.F., a 25 year-old man, uses Garnier putty to tame his waist-length, thick hair that is usually in two braids.
  • F.P., a 33 year-old woman with thick, fine hair uses Suave and White Rain hairspray.
  • P.P., a 63 year-old man uses “hair glue”. Don’t ask me where you buy that!
  • C.A., a 25 year-old woman with very thick hair uses Herbal Essence spray gel.
  • M.A., a 28 year-old woman with very thick hair uses Herbal Essence Touchably Smooth Anti-Friz Crème and Herbal Essence Max Hold hairspray. This is preceded by blow-drying with a Revlon ionic dryer and a Ginalli tourmaline ceramic straightener which, she says, “makes my hair awesome”.
  • My personal favorites for my long, dry hair are Got2b defiant pommade and V05.

Now go practice braiding!

TOPICS: Blog, Featured, Native American Culture, Pow Wow Mom's

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38 Responses to “Natives Don’t Have Bad Hair Days – Care For Your Braids”

  1. mdtulee says:

    I enjoyed the article, BabyRuth. mdt.

  2. jan charlo says:

    Ruthie you rock..that is the second article i have read of yours in a are a WRITER please keep it up// so nice to read well wriotten comments ot relevant topics..water rights and hair!!!

  3. shelly says:

    i enjoyed this article.. when i was younger my mom used to wash our hair in the rain water after the first rain… i never asked why but i think i will ……

    • Tara Martin (Akicita Win) says:

      Wben I was little my grandma used to use chamomile in my hair. I only trim it now, and use coconut oil in it to smooth it. I was it with organic shampoo from Desert Essence Organics Italian grape and the matching conditioner.

  4. Running Doe says:

    I am honored to read this wado for sharing, my hair is very long i can sit on it, i use shampoo, i get from the native book, and also, keep my hair in non ruber bands for they will break your hair off, use very mild stuff for my hair, i have mine in french braid alot, wado for sharing Running Doe, Cherokee

  5. Martin High Wolf says:

    I haven’t cut my hair not even to trim the ends in 13 years since I cut it all off when my dad died. I only wash it once every 7-10 days and then I wash it while it is still in double braids. I use Desert Essence Coconut Shampoo and condition with Aussie moist conditioner-revitalisant. I’m 56 and have no gray hair and no spit ends.

  6. Mnikaluza. says:

    My Grandmother told me in the old days they would boil colligen which was from animal ears, and nose and boil it down until it formed a gel . Then they cooled it down and put it in their hair before braiding and it kept it in place and kept the hair shining and strong. Thanks for the encouragement and reminder.

  7. Lena says:

    Please, are you able to tell me who is on this photo? There is a woman om fb that keep stealing photos of NDN youngsters, claiming them all to be pics of her own children. This one photo included.

    • Ruth Swaney says:

      Hi Lena, the gentleman on the left is Levi Blackwolf, of Wolfn Photography. This picture was on Levi’s Facebook page and I know for certain it is him.

  8. SaloliAliskisku says:

    Thank you Ruth
    Great article

  9. Leah says:

    Sunflower oil is traditional for us in the northeast

  10. Apache Warrior says:

    I wonder how long it took them to grow there hair?

  11. Sweetgrass women says:

    I like this article. where I come from women don’t touch a man’s hair unless they are family. It’s told that if people who play with your hair, you’ll be bald. I’m still young yet, for when I play sports my mom braids my hair. To show the other team I take pride in being native american.

  12. Bibi says:

    I have been using nothing but coconut oil in my hair for almost 4 years. My hair is naturally thin and with a Botticelli curl. I started growing it out when it was about shoulder length and now its halfway down my back. Along with a natural diet rich in protein, and washes once a month with just conditioner, the coconut oil has helped my hair grow, thicken and become strong and shiny with almost no split ends. I owe it all to a desire to reconnect with my native roots.

  13. Megan Chandler says:

    This is going to be helpful. My 4yr old Cherokee daughter has beautiful ringlet curls. Last only lasts about 5 mins. I’ll keep some of these trick in mind for braiding her thin curls.

  14. Brenna says:

    I use baking soda and apple cider vinegar for shampoo and conditioner. Oh so shiny hair (not greasy) that can go a few days in between the washings.

    • Brenna says:

      I do not recommend baking soda for your hair ever. It can never be diluted enough for a proper Ph. I still love apple cider vinegar though. And my sister loves castor oil.

  15. native mom says:

    Im a mom of a long hair family in a coastal community. i noticed that the wind is torture on the hair, hence people with braids have beautiful hair; also food and medications effect the hair, when i had surgery, the medication i was under took about 2 years for my hair to have a healthy feeling to the article, anything that encourages our people to grow back their power.

  16. riverbear says:

    I once got a herbal hair rinse (tea like) from an Apache woman, after shampoo you rinsed with this tea, but the secret was leaving it in then after your hair dried you brushed out the remains of the tea, thickened my hair and made it glisten, i loved this rinse which grows in the southwest. the thing is I forgot what it’s name is and I want more. . Does anyone know this herb?

    Best to you

  17. Joyce Williams says:

    This helped me a lot. Thank you. I am half Puerto Rican and Half Native. I’m trying so hard to get my hair to waist length and I always thought if i leave it out and wash it often it would get longer. But now i see that i should braid it more and not wash it too much.

  18. Wolflady Cruz says:

    I too am 1/2 Puerto Rican and 1/2 Apache. I never use shampoo, nor conditioner in my hair. I use the rain water and just let it run thru my hair till water is clear. I use pure coconut oil and keep it in a braid, my hair is long middle of my butt, I am nearly 55 in a few months. Have cut it a few times,just a few inches.

  19. Willard Latimer says:

    I have enjoyed your site after reading it for the first time;’but not the last time’. When I was in my thirty and forty my braids were like the brothers and sister that are pictured in this article. I did not wash my hair, for once a years. I would wrap my braid in stripes of soft cotton and at bed time wrap my head in an turban to keep every hair smooth and clean. I learnt this from my grandmother; “Who was Choctaw from Lumpkin, Steward Co.,Georgia. Her mother lived there for 98 years. Grandmother taught me everything I needed to know in life. I’m a Button & beads work Artist. Learnt by my father. Thank you, just for listing, from one whom has lost all my people; “But they seam to be around me always. This is the first time I was able to write or speak concerning these family ties ! thank you again. My wife related to the Delaware tribes.

  20. Daniel Hamm says:

    I’m just your average American mutt mix of German, Irish, Blackfoot, and Cherokee. The Natives in my family were all deceased before I was born ending with my great-grandmother, a shaman. I want to learn more about my Native heritage but the rest of my family oppose the Native side of the family. This gave me a lot of ideas to try cause I’ve tried everything I could find on the market for my hair and it remains the same, oily and broken. If anyone has any other ideas or help connecting back to my roots I’d appreciate it. I’m 29 and already going grey and white.

  21. shelly Willis says:

    Just wondering if anyone had any advice that you have used and know it works regarding dandruff and itchy scalp???

    • Jackie Wambolt says:

      fresh squeezed lemon juice and olive oil. The lemon cleans, and helps to dissolve the dry skin and the olive oil keeps your scalp from drying out. Mix the two and rub it into your scalp and let it sit for at least 20 minutes then rinse out, use a small amount of shampoo to remove excess oil. I’d recommend playing around with the miztures. Some require more or less oil.

  22. Jacquie Svensson says:

    Tea tree oil helps itchy scalp, as does rosemary. I use a mix of rosemary, cedarwood oil, sage, and thyme for my hair. Makes a huge difference. Surgery 2 yrs ago caused massive hair loss and I am starting to see improvement at last.

  23. Julee says:

    Vo5 is very damaging to hair. That might be why your hair is dry. When I was in cosmetology school, one of our teachers actually did a perm with Vo5. Try coconut oil once a week to add more moisture. I put it in my hair, wrap it in a towel and sleep that way. Then wash it in the morning.

  24. Skye says:

    I use coconut oil on my hair. My hair was black but it is now a silver/black and I am pushing 60. It’s very long but due to medical problems, I can’t braid it myself. The man on the left, Levi (?) his hair is beautiful. I am part Blackfoot and the interesting part is the side of my family that silvered early is the Blackfoot side.

  25. Dori says:

    I use Tail and Mane shampoo and conditioner for my hair, it helps my hair to get thick and grow long but does nothing for the split ends.
    I have VERY natural curly hair that is dry at the ends, what can I use to help with the split ends I can’t use oils and I’m allergic to them (I break out with a bad rash).
    I love long hair always had, but it does grow slowly do to my heart meds that I have to take to stay alive.
    I’m not really Native American probable less than an 1/8 my seventh Great-Grandmother was an Osage Princess so what I am told.
    I do wash my hair at least twice a week to help with the frizz (which I HATE do to my curly hair).

    • lynn says:


      We don’t have princesses in our history. Native people didn’t run a monarchy. But if your connected or feel connected to your heritage, pursue it.

  26. Andrew Tillotson says:

    Thank you.

  27. Sue says:

    I’m 70 years young,my hair is at butt not thick but not thin eairther,my hair seems to have stop growing wihitch makes me sad. I do have to use a conditioner. As I read it seems a lot of people use coconut oil now my question is do you use it as a conditioner or just for braiding? My hair is always in a braid except when I wash my beautiful hair wihitch is once or maybe every two weeks.

  28. Alicia says:

    Pure organic Coconut oil to condition your scalp and hair after washing. I wash mine every 10 days. My hair s to my waist. I am 35 half Choctaw/ Cherokee and German.

  29. riverbear says:

    I entered a question about a rinse that I got at pow wow from a woman from the Southwest. After washing your hair you rinsed it with a tea and left it in. After it dried you merely brushed out the remaining twigs and leaves. It made a big difference in the condition of my hair, made it shiny and healthy and a pride to wear it. My hair is very long and getting thin from my age. I was told that the people in the Southwest use this frequently. I can not remember the name of the herb or mixture, nor have I ever had a chance to see this nice woman again. I know the Apache used a tea rinse on their hair as they treasured their shiny hair. I am sorry that I did not get back to the brother that answered my question with another question about the look of the ingredients. Life gets hectic. The answer to this question is – it appeared as a sage or something similar, course, had small twigs, did not smell like sage or anything like that. No sweetgrass either, but it did have a nice earthy smell. Like I said and was instructed you left it in and did not rinse it out then combed out the dried herb. Sure miss it. Any help? Still looking.

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