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Native History: The Astonishing 1902 Order to Cut Native Hair!

The Commission of Indian Affairs sent a letter to superintendents of federal reservations in 1902 suggesting they force Native men to cut their hair.
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What was Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Atkinson Jones worried about in January of 1902? Hair, long hair on Native American men to be more precise.

On January 11, 1902, he sent a letter to superintendents of federal reservations and agencies suggesting they force Native men to cut their hair by withholding rations and employment.

“The wearing of long hair by the male population of your agency is not in keeping with the advancement they are making, or will soon be expected to make, in civilization,” Jones says in the order. “The wearing of short hair by the males will be a great step in advance and will certainly hasten their progress towards civilization.”

The letter talks about eradicating traditional habits at boarding schools, and how the long hair wasn’t helping if the men were allowed to grow it back out on the reservations.

What else was in the letter? Jones talks about how both men and women “paint,” which he said causes blindness.

“The use of this paint leads to many diseases of the eyes… this custom causes the majority of blindness among the Indians of the United States,” he says in the letter.

He also says that “Indian costume and blanket” should be discouraged and that “Indian dances and so-called Indian feasts should be prohibited.”

“In many cases these dances and feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading acts and to disguise immoral purposes,” Jones says in the letter.

Superintendents had until June 30, 1902 to report back on progress made regarding this order.

The letter outraged many, and made national news. provided a rather racist paragraph that appeared in the February 8, 1902 edition of Harper’s Weekly, in which the unnamed editors say:

“The red man has neither newspapers, letters, books, nor games to break the monotony of his life. He loves company. He gets all his news, all his pleasures, in daily contact with his fellows. He has always lived in a village.”

Slate says Harper’s Weekly also suggested that instead of forcing “government shears” on young Native men, they should be “educated along the line of his natural aptitudes, teach him to adapt to new conditions step by step.”

Between the public negativity against the order, and bad publicity that ensued after some supervisors used harsh methods to enforce the order, Jones backed down.

We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom by Tisa Wenger talks about Charles Burton, a BIA superintendent for the Hopi and Navajo, who reportedly used “whips, guns, and sheep shears to enforce Commissioner Jones’s infamous ‘haircut order.’”

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