History of Mohawk Hairstyle
image source: Getty
It’s long been debated whether the mohawk (or less extreme fauxhawk) – a hairstyle where the majority of the hair falls down the center of the head, which exploded in popularity in the early 1970s and was seen in countless catwalks from Fashion Week since – appropriates a traditional Aboriginal hairstyle. This isn’t specific to Mohawks, of course: when a group of people outside of the original creators use something from a specific culture without acknowledging its origins, things can start to tip over into cultural appropriation. However, unlike other black-and-white examples of people stealing symbols and traditions from other cultures (like braided hairstyles or Día de los Muertos makeup), the subject of Mohawk hairstyles is a bit more complicated.
Blame it on the less than perfect education on Native American history offered in school curricula or just general naivety, but many people don’t know the true origin of the Mohawk hairstyle. It has been said that the Mohawk hairstyle originated from the Mohawk tribe, but that’s not entirely true – it’s more of the whitewashed version. “The mohawk you see today is not exactly a mohawk that would be historically accurate,” Michael Witgen, PhD, professor in the Department of History and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture told POPSUGAR. race at Columbia University.
The story has been told incorrectly in several ways. For one thing, it was actually the Pawnee tribe of present-day Nebraska who traditionally wore a Mohawk-like hairstyle, not the Mohawk tribe of present-day New York. Although the men of the Mohawk tribe are considered the only wearers of the look, they actually wore their hair a little differently.
“They almost have what you would call a scalp lock,” says Witgen. They removed all their hair except for a section on the very top of the head at the very back and “they didn’t shave the rest of the head, they waxed it”. They would also have braided and decorated this tuft of hair, but it did not extend from the front of the head to the back like the hairstyle we know today.
“The Mohawk you think of is more of a creation of white people who ‘played’ Native Americans.”
They didn’t call it a mohawk either. “That’s the name given to them by foreigners,” he says. In historical records, English speakers often called it a bun, but Hollywood branded the hairstyle with the name we know today. “The mohawk you’re thinking of is really more of a creation of white people who ‘played’ Native Americans.”
He first appeared in Hollywood in the 1939 film “Drums Along the Mohawk” and the popular 1985 film “Vision Quest”, as well as countless other western films in between. In these films, this spiky front-to-back Mohawk hairstyle was worn by actors playing members of the Mohawk tribe, furthering this spread of misinformation. You also see it in people doing Boston Tea Party reenactments.
The book “Playing Indian” by Philip J. Deloria, currently a professor of history at Harvard University, explores the history of white Americans inaccurately appropriating different elements of native culture and, in turn, shaping national identity. “There’s a huge tradition in American pop culture from the time of the revolution where people ‘play’ Native Americans,” Witgen says. “They want to be subversive.”
This idea that he is anti-establishment also helped the hairstyle to be picked up in the 70s by the punk rock moment. “He became known as a rebel and then became attached to the punk movement,” says Nikki Apostolou, an Indigenous digital designer. “This style later inspired the hair for ‘Taxi Driver’ in 1976.” She points out that was two years before the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which lifted prohibitions that prevented indigenous people from practicing their own religion and culture.
Image source: Everett Collection
With all of this in mind, it’s a little easier to understand the complexity of whether wearing a mohawk or a fauxhawk in today’s society is cultural appropriation. “Wearing the mohawk/fauxhawk hairstyle, in and of itself, is not completely appropriation, especially since the natives themselves shared this style among many tribes,” says Apostolou. “What would make it cultural appropriation is the attitude when you wear it. For example, if it was part of a costume or if it was used to make fun of indigenous individuals”, it is exactly how the whitewashed version of the hairstyle was born.
Apostolou thinks educating yourself about the tumultuous origins of modern hairdressing can go a long way. “A lot of people wear the mohawk style and attribute it to the punk culture of the 70s and 80s because of its extreme look,” she says. “Simply acknowledging the origin, attributing it to aboriginal people, would be beneficial…in the same way that we can recognize and respect that other hairstyles come from a specific group.”