Culture - Who we are

Hairstyle

Reflections #136
By Patsy West

A look at 18th century hairstyles of the Lower Creek Indians, many of whom would in time become known as Seminoles, shows little conclusive information about a uniform look.

One fine illustration depicts the Yamacraw chief, Tomochichi, and his adopted son, Tooanahowie. Tomochichi was presented at the British court in 1734. He and his son wear their hair short in the front, falling to their necks in the back. However, a hairstyle worn by a Creek warrior sent by the Creek leader Brim to fight the Spanish in 1776 shows a partially shaved head with a small ornamental, broached forelock on the crown and long braided strands continuing from the crown. With the addition of "a fringe of hair along the forehead," this latter style is similar to the style which John R. Swanton considers typical of the Creeks, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Yuchi. And so, basically intact, this hairstyle had continued south with the Lower Creeks' arrival in north Florida in the 1750s, where they were called 'Seminoles,' and where, in the early 1800s a number of men wearing this styled haircut were painted and included in the McKenney - Hall History of the Indian Tribes of North America.

Creek women from this period are seldom illustrated. However, styles are generally consistent with the `fringe of hair along the forehead,' long bangs and a tight bun. This was the Seminole woman's `do' until around 1900. Hair was very important in daily life, a distinctive part of `Seminoleness' in a social and somewhat ritualistic sense. Until the 1950s, a Seminole woman's hair was only publicly let down in times of personal mourning, a custom practiced by a woman and her kinswomen. In traditional families today, male babies have their hair ceremonially shaved at four months of age, leaving only a forelock. Their hair and nail clippings are then carefully stored away. In the Seminole belief system, common in many Native American cultures, a person's hair had a strong use by supernaturals and in black magic, and in the old days it was carefully guarded.

When photographs began to be made of the Florida Seminoles in the latter 1800s, it was often difficult to see the men's hairstyle because they wore turbans. They shaved the sides of their heads, left a fringe around the face, and left a scalp lock down the crown of their head, which terminated in two braided ques, seen illustrated in MacCauley's report on The Seminole Indians of Florida and shown by Coffee Gopher in a photograph taken about 100 years ago.

After 1915, some Seminole men discontinued cutting their hair in the traditional style according to information given to anthropologist William C. Sturtevant by Josie Billie (Panther clan) in the 1950's. Josie Billie had related that:

" . . he and a friend were the first in their group to cut their hair after the whiteman's style. They went to Fort Myers and watched a barber cutting hair, then bought razors and scissors, cut each other's hair, and went to the busk (Green Corn Dance) that way. Lots of people did not like it and laughed at them, but since then practically every man changed to this style."

This was the `bowl' cut. The hair was trimmed on the sides and off the neck - cut as if a bowl was inverted on the head. Other men, especially those of the older generation or more traditional, kept to an abbreviated old-style cut, but they began to let it grow out. Most appeared to have trimmed the sides, rather than shaved them, so the traditional hairstyle was almost unrecognizable.

By 1910, the tightly twisted hair bun had become a softer affair, secured on the top of their heads with a hairnet, and fastened in place with large celluloid (early plastic) hairpins. The buns became larger as a result. By the 1920s the evolution of the women's hairstyle was underway. They combed their hair towards their foreheads, placed a small roll of cloth behind their hair, then flipped their hair back over the roll, securing it with a hairnet or pinning it down.

The hairpins also became more ornamental. For a short time in the latter 1920s, they went to the trouble of mak-ing elaborate, beaded hairnets. But, early in the 1930's the style changed. A fitted crown of cloth-covered cardboard or other flat material replaced the cloth roll, giving their hair a definitely pronounced shape. Then, in the 1940s, hair fashion reigned supreme with women appearing to `out do' one another with extravagant hair board shapes.

By the 1940s and 1950s, with many Seminole children attending school, young women had begun letting their hair hang loose for the first time, a real break from tradition. Pony tails, short cuts and perms were the rule in the 1950s and 1960s, in contrast to the middle-aged women who continued to wear the large hair boards, which had been stylish in their own youth. The 1960s saw some women reverting back to a severe, tightly coiled knot, positioned not on top, but on their forehead.

Over the years, some Seminole men have worn an aspect of the 19th century hairstyle. Elderly Seminole women have tended to keep to the older hairstyle of preference, but with their generations' passing, the traditional hairstyles - once such an important part of a woman's daily dress - will be a thing of the past. Fortunately though, they will not be forgotten and will play an active role in `dressing up' for traditional clothing contests and reenact-ments.

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