Native American culture has long been rooted in respect for the land and living in harmony with nature, so it’s natural for Indigeous fashion and beauty traditions to be a strong reflection of these values. As November is National Native American Heritage Month, pausing to learn about the history and evolution of Native American traditions is one small way we can broaden our awareness and support the integrity of precious Native American culture.
Native American Traditional Clothing and Style
The clothing of Native Americans was closely tied to the environment and spiritual beliefs. Ranging from tropical and woodland regions to deserts and mountains, Native Americans developed diverse styles of clothing. In the warmest regions, little clothing was worn. In California, for example, Indigenous men were normally naked, but women wore simple knee-length skirts. In the coldest areas of the Subarctic and Arctic, warm trousers, hooded anoraks, and mittens protected Indigenous people from freezing temperatures. Despite the vast differences in climate and clothing styles, Native Americans had in common the basic notion of living in harmony with nature.
Clothing Materials Used by Native Americans
Native Americans made use of the natural materials available to them from their environment. Here are some notable materials commonly used for clothing:
Native Americans were, and continue to be, survivors. Generations ago, they fished, hunted, and gathered edible plants. Some tribes, such as the Navajo in the southwestern United States and the Oneida of northern New York, tended flocks of sheep or grew crops to add to what they found in nature. Native Americans developed methods of tanning animal skins to make soft leather, and from this leather, they made clothing and shoes. Leather clothing was soft and strong, and if the animal’s fur was left on the skin, it was also warm, which was ideal for tribes in cooler regions.1
To Native Americans, all of nature, including animals and plants, have spiritual power. Wearing parts of an animal blesses the person with some of the animal’s power and strength. The wearing of animal skins became more than just putting on a form of comfortable and durable clothing for Indigenous people.
One of the most plentiful natural resources was the bark of trees. It was stripped, dried, and shredded to make fibers. These fibers were used to weave soft, comfortable clothing. Typical shredded bark clothing included skirts, aprons, shirts, belts, hats, capes, and even raincoats. In the southeastern United States, the Cherokee used mulberry bark to make soft shirts, while the Pomo living along the West Coast used shredded redwood bark to make wraparound skirts. Tribes of the rainy Northwest coast of North America, such as the Tlingit and the Suquamish, wove rain-hats and raincoats from the bark of cedar trees.2
Although many tribes used handmade methods of weaving, natives of the American Southwest were the first to develop a loom, or weaving device, for weaving cloth. In 1200 A.D., long before the arrival of the first Europeans, Native Americans in the Southwest grew cotton and wove it into cloth. They also wove yucca, wool, feathers, and even human hair into fabrics.
The continued contact with Europeans and white settlers halted Native Americans’ ability to continue making clothing traditionally due to being pushed off their homelands and onto reservations during the 1800s. This caused them to lose the ability to hunt for or gather the necessary materials for their clothes. Their new circumstances forced them to buy clothing from Europeans, which drastically changed the Native American clothing style.3
Traditional Garments Worn by Native Americans
Today, traditional clothing is still worn by Native Americans to express their culture and heritage. While there are several prominent garments often worn by Indigenous people throughout history, here are a few of the most influential:
A Native American headdress, or sometimes known as a war bonnet, is a headpiece with feathers that are attached to the entire top edge of a leather headband. Commonly, they’re embellished with intricate beadwork or natural leather. The feathers decorating headdresses are typically from birds that are indigenous to the local area of the tribe. The feathers are held together with leather thread or sinew and can be designed in many different and unique ways. The Native American headdress is a well-known symbol of strength and bravery to the indigenous people of North America, and they’re typically worn by the most powerful and influential members of the tribe.4
Breechcloths and Leggings
A breechcloth, also known as a loincloth, is a long rectangular piece of tanned deerskin, cloth, or animal fur that is worn between the legs and tucked over a belt. Breechcloths leave the legs bare, so Native American men often wore leggings for warmth. Native American leggings are tube-like footless pant legs, usually made from buckskin or other soft leather. Leggings varied from tribe to tribe with some being fringed and others painted with different colors.5
Breastplates are made from a variety of materials including bone hair-pipe, deer hide, and glass beads. Breastplates provided spiritual protection to the men who wore them, giving a sense of strength and security to them as they fought for their tribes. The decorations on each particular breastplate are deeply meaningful to its owner and often include feathers, quills, handmade beads, and mirrors. Oftentimes, the wealth and strength of a warrior could be determined by the number of hair-pipe bones that made up his breastplate, as well as the particular items it was adorned with.6
Native American Beauty Traditions
For many cultures, makeup was used to define social and military status or to assert ferocity. This is mirrored in nature with animals displaying markings to their advantage, whether it be for hunting purposes or to defend themselves against predators. For Native Americans, though, face painting was a way to show tribal identity.
Native American Face Painting
Face painting has been used in Native American culture since antiquity with each tribe having its own unique patterns and designs. Face painting is an important tradition that allows Native American people to connect with their heritage, tell stories, and assert their social standing and power. The uses, colors, and symbolism of face paintings, though, have varied throughout time and tribe.
The Significance of Colors
Colors in Native American culture have special significance:
- Red is a violent color and signifies war.
- Black is usually considered to be an inauspicious color in most cultures, but for Native Americans, it’s the color of living and is worn during war preparations.
- White is the color of peace.
- Green is worn under the eyes to empower the wearer with night vision and indicates endurance and harmony.
- Yellow is the color of death, as it is the color of “old bones,” and is commonly worn during mourning.
- Blue symbolizes confidence, wisdom, and authority.7
Native American Face Painting Symbols and Their Meanings
Certain symbols were used by tribes to communicate with other members. Each symbol had its own significance and was usually painted on an individual’s clothes, tepees, and other belongings to mark their heroic achievements.
A few common symbols and their meanings include:
The Eye of a Medicine Man Symbol
The Eye of a Medicine Man was a very powerful symbol that represents the Medicine Man or Shaman who was believed to have magical powers of spiritual healing and also see the future. The outer lines of the symbol signified the four directions: North, South, East, and West. The inner line signified the Spirit world, which the Medicine Man was knowledgeable of, and the circle in the center signified the eye of the Medicine Man and his spiritual vision.8
The Lightning symbol was commonly seen painted on the face or across the forehead of warriors. It was believed that the symbol brought power and speed to the wearer. A Lightning and Zig-Zag symbol, if painted in red, also symbolized the Thunderbird, which was considered to be a powerful spirit that flashed lightning from its beak and eyes.9
The Morning Star Symbol
The Morning Star mainly symbolized a warrior’s gallant acts and other major events of his life. It represented hope and guidance and was used by many Native American tribes concerning past spirits and ancestors.10
The Hand symbol meant that the warrior was successful in a hand-to-hand battle. It symbolized life and was perceived to impart energy to the warrior. The Hand symbol was also commonly used due to being fast and easy to apply, requiring no artistic skill.11
To learn more about Native American symbols used for face painting, click here.
Native American Beauty Secrets
Many modern beauty products contain ingredients that have been used by Native Americans throughout history. Hundreds of years ago, ancient elders discovered the skincare and beauty benefits of a wide range of plants, such as yucca and juniper.
Here are a few cosmetic ingredients with amazing benefits that Native Americans discovered:
Corn was very important in ancient Native American life and still is today. Blue corn was a food staple of many Native American tribes, including the Hopi, Pueblo, Navajo, and Zuni for hundreds of years. In addition to being used as food, it was also used for religious ceremonies. Corn was actually considered a deity in some cultures and a clan symbol for certain tribes. For the Hopi, it represented the Eastern rising sun and the beginning of life and wisdom.12
Many Native Americans used ground corn to cleanse and purify the skin. It was rubbed onto the skin before ceremonies to rid the body of impurities. Ground corn also acts as an exfoliator, ridding the skin of dead cells, thus encouraging cell renewal.
This flat-leafed bladed grass was considered sacred and was commonly smoked to purify individuals and their surroundings, while also being used in ceremonies. 13 Additionally, some Native American women decorated their hair with sweetgrass. As a wash, sweetgrass was used to treat windburn and chapped skin. Sweetgrass tea was also used as a hair tonic to make the hair shiny and fragrant.
The berries from Juniper, an evergreen shrub (also called creeping cedar), were made into a tea that was used as a wash for the skin. Juniper root was also soaked in water to wash the horses, making their coats shiny.14 It’s now used in hair care products meant for shiny and healthy hair.
The yucca plant was used by several Native American tribes to encourage hair growth and to prevent baldness. The crushed roots were soaked in water to make a hair wash. Other methods involved peeling the bark of the root, which was rubbed in a pan of shallow water to make suds to rub into the hair and scalp. Yucca was also used as a hair wash for newborns by the Zuni Indians to try to help their hair grow healthy and strong.15
Native American Hair Traditions
Hair has special spiritual and cultural significance for Native Americans, though traditions and styles vary from tribe to tribe. Whether worn long, braided, or bound in a knot, most Native Americans see hair as a source of strength and a physical extension of hopes, dreams, thoughts, prayers, aspirations, history, and experiences. It’s sacred.
Long Hair in Native American Culture
Native Americans’ beliefs around long hair, as with many of their beliefs, are tied to the earth and nature. Long hair has symbolic significance tying them to mother earth whose hair is long grasses. It’s believed that long hair in Native American culture is a physical manifestation of the growth of the spirit, and some say it allows for extrasensory perception and connection to all things. Some Native American tribes believe that the hair is connected to the nervous system, and it reaches out like tentacles to pull energy and information from the world around us.16
Throughout time, Native Americans held the belief that when one’s hair is cut, they lose a small aspect of their relationship with themselves. The Navajo, for example, traditionally and ceremonially cut their children’s hair on their first birthday, and thereafter let it grow unimpeded.17 However, many tribes cut their hair while grieving the death of an immediate family member, or to signify a traumatic event or major life change. Cutting the hair at these times represents the time spent with the deceased loved one and its ending; it can also represent a new beginning. Additionally, cut hair is never thrown away by Native Americans. It’s usually ceremonially burnt with sage or sweetgrass in smudging rituals to release the hope, prayers, and dreams of the owner to the Creator.18
Common Native American Hairstyles
The archetypal Native American hairstyle is long and flowing or with long plaits or braids and a center part. Hair and its styling were traditionally of enormous importance and held great symbolism for Native Americans.
Native American men in varying tribes wore the following hairstyles:
- Men of the Blackfoot and Sioux tribes cut their hair to denote shame or when in mourning. They frequently wore a forelock between the eyes or a pompadour.
- Pueblo men often wore a chongo (low bun at the nape of the neck) or shoulder-length hair, but by the 1800s, this style was worn with a bandana. Some men of the southwest wore dreadlocks or topknots.
- Seminole Indians believe that hair is sacred and must be protected from others seeking to do them harm, so Seminole men traditionally wore a large fan shape over the front of the head to keep it safe.
- Men who had long braids or shaved heads often wore artificial roaches. These were commonly made of brightly dyed deer or porcupine hair.
- Iroquois and Lenape warriors of the northeast shaved their heads, leaving only a single lock of hair at the crown (scalplock), a roach (the stereotypical “mohawk” style), or a tonsure (a fringe running around the head).
- The Apache cut their hair each spring in a ceremony to bring success and good health.
Native American women in varying tribes wore the following hairstyles:
- Some women painted their hair with horizontal stripes or dyed their center part with a bright color.
- Navajo and Pueblo women typically wore their hair in a chongo style. Others cut their hair to the shoulders in a blunt cut with bangs.
- Seminole women from the Lower Creeks of Georgia and Florida wore a complex hairstyle, with their hair fanned into a disk over a tilted frame that remained in place under the hair.
- Unmarried Hopi women were renowned for their unique hairstyle of elaborate squashblossom or butterfly whorls worn at their ears. This style was achieved by the girl’s mother winding her hair around a curved wood frame and then removing the frame after securing the hair in place. Once a woman married, this style was no longer worn.
- Women from the Creek and Chickasaw tribes wore their hair in topknots.
How You Can Honor and Celebrate National Native American Heritage Month
National Native American Heritage Month is a time to acknowledge our country’s past and its impact on tribal citizens, educate oneself and others on particular challenges Native American communities face, and recognize how Indigenous people are combating those issues today. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Although the name eventually changed, it started an annual tradition upheld in communities across the United States.
For those wanting to celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, here are three ways to honor Native Americans this month, and every month:
Visit a Reservation or Museum
The US holds in trust 56.2 million acres of land for various Native American tribes and individuals, according to the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. There are approximately 326 reservations.
These reservations are not tourist attractions; many are the remnants of native tribes’ lands, while others were created by the federal government for Native Americans who were forcibly removed from their lands. They are homes for tribes and communities; it’s where many live, work and raise their families.
However, some reservations welcome visitors and have even erected museums to educate the wider public about their history and culture. For example, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, features an engaging exhibit fit for all ages. The Cherokee community also hosts cultural events and sells items nearby.
Support Native-Owned Businesses
Black Friday is just one day after Thanksgiving, so instead of spending all your money on Amazon, consider buying from Native American owned businesses. It’s a great way to support native communities’ economic well-being as well as contribute to worthwhile social causes.
A few Indigenous-owned beauty brands you can support are:
- Cheekbone Beauty: Cruelty-free, high-quality beauty products that are sustainably packaged and inspired by the 7000 Indigenous languages.
- Sḵwálwen Botanicals: Honoring traditional Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) teachings, the products incorporate wild-harvested plants that are acquired sustainably and respectfully, which means they’re free of harsh chemicals, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, synthetic colors, and parabens.
- Blended Girl Cosmetics: The brand focuses on vibrant palettes that connect to Indigenous culture and has donated to Black Lives Matter, Page Outreach, and Navajo/Hopi COVID-19 Relief.
“Decolonize” Your Thanksgiving Dinner
The Thanksgiving story of pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a friendly meal will be reenacted and celebrated across the country, but many Native Americans actually consider it a “Day of Mourning.” To Native Americans, the story overlooks how the introduction of European settlers spelled tragedy for indigenous communities.
For this reason, some Native American groups and their allies are calling on Americans to “decolonize” their Thanksgiving celebrations. Some ways of doing this include putting away Native American decorations and tropes, introducing native dishes to the dinner table, and conversing about Native American history with guests.
Check out these Indigenous recipes to add to your Thanksgiving dinner.
How will you be celebrating and honoring National Native American Heritage Month? Let us know in the comments.