If you think that hair braiding was invented by the French or the Dutch, think again–hair braiding has been around for longer than anyone might imagine, and it’s some of the oldest cultures that braiding is rooted in. The weaving of hair, from a simple twisting of two or three strands to a highly complex configuration of intensely woven braids that come together to create larger braided styles, in addition to special effects that can be created with partially braided sections integrated with other distinctive effects are all a form of hair styling that has been in practice–in one form or another, for longer than anyone even knows. Today, modern women (and men) braid their hair mostly as a form of forward fashion, or to create an attractive way of securing their hair away from their face and neck, when they need it out of the way or when it’s a cooler summer coif.
Braids and Their Meaning in Past Times
Throughout history, in many of the world’s oldest cultures, the braiding of hair has been performed as a way to indicate many particular details about the person whose hair is braided, from class and wealth, to military status. Married or single, young or old, braids have historically borne more significance than a trending hairstyle to follow. Braiding for sheer beauty has always been practiced, too, even when braids might have also indicated to which tribe the wearer belonged or to signify the religion of someone. Native American men have often braided their hair in preparation for going into battle. There weren’t necessarily particular types of braiding that belonged to a specific tribe, however, the Hopi women were characterized by their typical hairstyle of wooden rolled squash blossom whorls.
Braiding Progression, Through the Years
For any young Native American from any tribe, the fine art of precise braiding has always been an essential requirement, especially with the way the hair was braided being significantly telling of status and more. This being said, in some tribes, braided hair indicated the medicine man, where only a person of his status was allowed to braid their hair. In a showy effort, young braves hoping to find a worthy mate would braid their hair, adding accents of feathers, beading and leather pieces. All Native American women learned the art of braiding early, as they were, in certain tribes, the only ones responsible for all braiding.
More aptly named, hair braiding through the generations might have more aptly been referred to as “hair weaving,” as this best describes the process engaged in by Native Americans. There were two braided hairstyles worn by women in Native American tribes, with one the native Americans referred to as a scalplock, consisting of a three strand braid, beginning at the nape of the neck and running down the back. The other, possibly a more popular form of braiding, was done by first making a concise part in the center of the head, running from the forehead hairline and proceeding all the way down to the hairline at the nape of the neck. The hair from each side was gathered and divided into three strands of equal proportion, which were formed into a braid that began at or just below the ear. Variations would be in the length of the braid-work, with leather strips tying off the end of braiding. The braid might continue down with only an inch or so remaining, or it might end, leaving a nice stock of hair–say, 5-7 ends at the bottom, free and full.
The variations existed more in add-ons to the basic braids. pony beads and wampum beads might be added to the braid itself, but more often beads, bones, feathers and other items from plants lauded by the culture would be added. The items usually signified something, and came from spiritual or medicinal appreciation. Often, these special added decorations were incorporated by being affixed to the thin leather strips that were used to tie off the braid, typically at the end of the strip, to dangle freely. Alternately, the braids might be painted or dyed for certain effects. Men often wore their longer hair in a short topknot style. A significant message was sent in the exact wearing position of two finished side braids, with married women purposely keeping their two braids to the front, to lie against their chests, while unmarried women made sure that their two braids remained behind their shoulders, resting against their backs.