Historical Hairdos

  True or False

  • Chief Pontiac, who is associated with the only attack on Fort Pitt, had a pompadour like Elvis Presley.
  • Elvis’ great-great-great-grandmother, Morning White Dove,  was a full-blooded Cherokee.
  • Elvis impersonators are common today in Ottawa Indian territory, and French colonists first called the native inhabitants there the “raised-hair people.”

The first one is true. So is the second. And, the third.

Barber-pole-01Tribal Haircuts

In the early 1600s, French fur traders and bureaucrats tended to name Indian groups based on hairdos.

Take the Hurons. They are a confederation of tribes near the great lake of the same name. The French, who wore wigs, looked at their fantastic haircuts and made comments worthy of the red carpet.  They called them Hurons, the fashion equivalent of Morons. Huron is an old French word meaning “bristly or unkempt knave.”

These people called themselves Wyandots, or at least something that sounded like that is spelled. Indians did not have a written language, so most of their own tribal names are passed down to us as phonetic spellings approximated by European woodsmen who could barely write the words they knew. Wyandots is taken to mean “islanders” or “people of the peninsula.”


Regardless of the French reviews, the Wyandots were quite proud of their standing follicles. However, thanks to Hollywood, they don’t get credit for them. The makeup people in “Drums Along the Mohawk,” starring Henry Fonda in 1939, gave the Mohawk Indians in upstate New York what were really Wyandot hairdos, a standing strip of hair from the forehead to the nape of the neck.

Native American websites attempting to explain Indian culture often note that hair fashions varied among tribes, and within them, probably as much then as they do now.

But, we have a first-hand account of Mohawk hairstyling in the 1700s from James Smith, who was captured and adopted into the tribe.

He was among the few British fighters not shot, tomahawked, scalped or burned at the stake during General Braddock’s sorry attempt to take Fort Duquesne from the French in 1755.  However, Smith still had to withstand Indian barbering.

[A] number of Indians collected about me and one of them began to pull hair out of my head. He had some ashes on a piece of bark in which he frequently dipped his fingers in order to take a firmer hold, and so he went on as if he had been plucking a turkey, until he had all the hair clean out of my head, except a small spot about three or four inches square on my crown the remaining hair was cut and three braids formed which were decorated. . . 

So, a Mohawk hairdo at that time was a square of braided hair. John Wayne portrayed Smith in “Allegheny Uprising,” another 1939 movie. (How many movies did Hollywood make in 1939?) It was based on the book “The First Rebel,” so-named because Smith went on to become quite the rabble rouser in this territory as colonial land grabbers rose up against British rule(s). John Wayne, though, keeps his boyish 20th Century locks throughout the film.


TJ Jackson sports a meticulously beaded outfit in a style suited to both Elvis and Native American traditions

TJ Jackson sports a meticulously beaded outfit in a style suited to both Elvis and Native American traditions

Indian Elvis Impersonators

French settlers (Perhaps, we should call them Europeans from the French tribe) saw American natives sporting what we call pompadours along the Ottawa River in Canada. They called them the  “raised-hair people,” or ” “les gens de cheveux soulevées.” The name didn’t stick.

They might have called them the Pompadours, but the term had not yet evolved. Madame du Pompadour, the French beauty whose brushed-back hair and charm earned her world renown, hadn’t been born yet. 

Fortunately, we know the tribe by what they call themselves,  “Algonkin (Algonquin).” It supposedly means “place of spearing eel and fish from a canoe.” Okay.

It should mean “place where Indians gather for glitzy contests to show who can do the best Elvis.”  Why? Check out my favorite Indian/Elvis performer,  T.J. Jackson, competing in a recent meet there.

Thank you. Thank you, very much.

Chief Pontiac

All known renderings of Pontiac (Obwandiyag may be a closer pronunciation) are based largely on artistic imaginations. But, he was an Ottawa war chief, so he likely sported a pompadour at least some of the time.

Chief Pontiac

Chief Pontiac

Those traveling the warpath were particularly inclined to wear noticeable hairdos. It was a demonstration of courage.

How so?  It was an “in-your-face” statement to opposing warriors. Their primary purpose often was to collect souvenir scalps to take home and display. A woman was more inclined to move into a man’s lodge, if he had a scalp hanging in it.


The so-called Pontiac’s Rebellion, or Pontiac’s Conspiracy or Pontiac’s War,  starts with the

1948 Pontiac hood ornament is a stylized streamlined version of the chief.

1948 Pontiac hood ornament is a stylized streamlined version of the chief.

French giving virtually all their holdings in North America to England. That’s because the British  (including our vaunted forefathers) thumped the French in a 7-year global war. American historians call the battles and raids here the French and Indian War. The French and most of the Indians were actually on the same side, the losing one. The war’s name reflects our British perspective, the winning one.

For Indians, it was just a continuation of a single war that started 300 years before when Europeans landed here, kissed the soil and immediately started surveying it. And, for the Indians, the war would not end for yet another 100 years.

Pontiac’s situation is perhaps best told by Edmond L. Sabin, a storyteller noted for his thorough research.

“The French treated chiefs as equals and tribes as brothers and children; lived in their lodges, ate of their food, created good feeling by distributing presents, interfered little with ancient customs, traded fairly, and forbade whiskey.

The English despised the Indians, lived apart, demanded rather than asked, were stingy in trading, and cheated by means of liquor.

When the Indians visited the (British) forts, instead of being treated with attention and politeness, they were received gruffly, subjected to indignities, and not infrequently helped out of the fort with the butt of a sentry’s musket or a vigorous kick from an officer.”

So, Pontiac did not like the British. Or, their settlers. He thought it time to act before they grew stronger. Pontiac sent a bloody wampum belt among the tribes urging them to overtake a dozen or so frontier forts. Fort Pitt and Fort Ligonier were among them. He personally went for Fort Detroit. All three endured. Detroit is saved by a young Indian girl who falls in love with a handsome British major. That’s all worthy of a separate future post.

In the end, an Illinois Indian takes Pontiac’s scalp, pompadoured or not.


elvis headdress


OMG Elvis Was NDN

Many descendants of First Americans are proud to count Elvis Presley among their group.

Chantal Rondeau, who calls herself a modern American Indian princess, proudly points to his ruddy complexion, cheekbones and handsomeness as all the evidence one needs.

He could sing, too. Indian warriors each had a song they sang to themselves when things got tough. They called it their death song.

Presley’s great-great-great-grandmother, Morning White Dove (1800-1835), was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. The “White” part of her name refers to her status as an Indian friendly to whites. It was common for male colonists to marry “white” Indians as white females were scarce on the frontier.

To read Elvis’ lineage go to this site. It may change your idea of him being a tragic figure. Compared to where he came from, he was quite stable.

Elvis opened the year 1977 here in Pittsburgh with a New Year’s Eve concert at the Civic Arena. He never saw the end of the year. Hopefully he had an Indian song to carry him on.


EDITOR’S NOTE: All of the above refers to the hairstyling of men not women. It seems human males were once commonly as ostentatious in adornment as male birds. Still, there are notable hairdos among Indian women. Perhaps, we’ll address those another time.




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