How we wear our hair has come to be seen as a way to express ourselves in a society where we must constantly try to differentiate ourselves from the masses, and identify as individuals. Hair is one of the most powerful symbols of individuality, both because it is a physical representation of something personal, and because it is public rather than private. While many hairstyles are rooted in historic or cultural events, their origins often times do not stick true to how they evolve over time. One example which perfectly shows how meaning and interpretation of any object, specifically a hairstyle, can change over time is the mohawk. However no matter how many different cultures and for how many different reasons people adopted this style, the one factor that remains the same throughout it all is that the mohawk was intended to differentiate one from a crowd. It stood as a defining characteristic which visually signified a person as different or special from those around them.
The mohawk is a hairstyle where a center strip of hair stretching from top to bottom of the scalp is left long, and the sides of the head are shaved. The mohawk got its name from its roots tracing back to the Native American people. The hairstyle was named after the Mohawk nation, who were an indigenous tribe rooted in upstate New York, in the Mohawk valley. Although the Mohawk people are where we get the name of this hairstyle, ironically the Mohawks did not actually style themselves this way. Instead, the true Mohawk tribe’s hairstyle consisted of mainly plucked out hair, leaving just a small square of hair on the back of the head and was worn in braids. However, the style that we associate with the term “mohawk” today, was actually derived from the Iroquois people.
Many Native American tribes, specifically the Iroquois, used this hairstyle as a way to indicate the status of the men in the tribe. Specifically, that of a warrior. Before battles, warriors would pluck their hair into the mohawk pattern, pulling out shafts at a time, until all that remained was the center strip. This was done to show strength before war, as well as signify that these men were the ones in charge of protecting the tribe. The differentiation in hair was a visible sign to show both their strength and leadership of the tribe. In the Iroquois culture, honor, social success, and glory were all thought best to be achieved through war. Those who had the most respect and status among the tribe were often war chiefs, and their reputations were built off of their successes as leading warriors. Because of this status, mohawks themselves became representative of power and success in these tribal cultures. Not only how was this haircut a way to distinguish oneself as different, it was also a way to distinguish oneself as successful and respected throughout the community.
As history progresses on however, the Native Americans, and Iroquois specifically, were not the only ones to use the mohawk as a symbol in war or hunt. In World War II, many of the American GIs, specifically paratroopers wore their hair in mohawks to intimidate their enemies. This tactic was also seen in the Vietnam war. Specifically, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which fought in World War II, which was nicknamed the filthy thirteen, consisted of thirteen men who refused to bathe. These men wore mohawks and even used war paint to intimidate the enemies. The mohawks additionally garnered strong support from Americans back home, making the public interest in the war increase. The use of the mohawk in this context shows that not only was it used to channel the power and success which is was representative in Native American tribes, but also to draw attention from civilians back home, and set the regiment apart from others.
Approaching the end of the 20th century, the punk rock scene was the next era of history where the mohawk makes a significant mark on the time. The mohawk’s entrance into punk rock culture is one that follows the theme of the hairstyle being used to differentiate oneself from others. While the mohawk was originally used as a way to signify a warrior, it was now being used as a way to stand out in a different way. Punk rock was all about reflecting and mocking society. It was designed to be rude and unconventional in both the lyrical sense, and the physical sense. Most musicians styled their hair in brightly colored mohawks, or drastically shaved heads. These drastic styles were paired with ripped and destroyed clothes in an attempt to make a statement and boldly contrast popular culture and what were viewed as societal norms. As a sound, rock music makes little sense to many listeners. This was exactly the image that singers wanted to portray to their audiences. Using both image, and sound, these artists wanted to speak out and stand out against a monochromatic background, and because the mohawk was so unseen in popular culture, it was the perfect style to differentiate the punk rockers from the standards of society they were rebelling against.
However, in todays culture, the mohawk is more so an object which sparks debate. Many believe that because of its indigenous roots, only Native Americans should be allowed to wear their hair in this style. Due to its significant meaning both in war, and in the general culture of indigenous people, specifically the Iroquois, it is believed by many that its use outside of Native Americans would be considered cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation surrounding Native American people is something that is incredibly relevant today, especially considering the long history of oppressing the Native people’s voices and not allowing them to speak for themselves. However, the concept of cultural appropriation is something that society today still struggles with, as it is a vague term which is open enough to be interpreted in many different ways. Culture is built in part by taking ideas from others, and interpreting and adopting in in one’s own ways, so it of course can be a blurry line between appropriation and appreciation. However, what does draw the line is when one shows a disregard for another culture, and exploits the power or imagery associated with it.
Aside from simply individually cutting one’s hair in the mohawk style, one place that this debate of cultural appropriation surrounding the mohawk is evident is in the mascots of sports teams. Many sports teams, both at a high school level, as well as a college level have mascots which reference Native American culture. The image of the mohawk is used to represent a warrior spirit, and signify the power and strength of the athletic team, much like it was in the Native American tribes, such as the Iroquois, to represent strength and spirit before a battle. However, by not paying respect to those native people which the hairstyle was derived, mascots representing mohawks and other indigenous imagery becomes offensive to those who are Native peoples. Even further an issue than the mascots themselves, many sports teams have taken on the tradition of shaving mohawks into their hair if the team qualifies for finals. While this is done in the name of comradery and team spirit, these traditions that go back in history at schools are beginning to face more scrutiny as our culture tries to become more aware of our own cultural implications and how we treat the complex histories and cultures around us. Because of the increasing backlash, many of these schools are opting to change their mascots, and choose something more politically correct and culturally sensitive.
While the mohawk may not have been an object that has drastically impacted the world, or any one specific time period or culture in any way, it can instead can be seen as a representation, and manifestation of one of the key characteristics which make us human. A desire and need to identify as an individual. First this can be seen in Native American tribes, as men used the hairstyle to distinguish oneself as a warrior, and someone of high respect. In World War II, the style again was adopted in an attempt to set a regiment apart from others as well as embody the warrior spirit associated with the haircut. In a more modern era, this desire to set oneself apart is seen in the punk rock scene where mohawks were used to physically show the world that they did not fit in. And that was the intent. Today the ethical implications surrounding this haircut are contested by many, as it is being understood as not only an eye catching hairstyle, but also an object that is deeply rooted in indigenous people’s history and culture.