hair conditioners (precontact) Mesoamerican; North American Great Plains, Plateau, Northeast, California, and Southwest cultures

A hair conditioner is a treatment placed on the hair after it has been washed. Pre-Columbian Indians used hair conditioners for the same reasons people use them today — to add shine to the hair, make it more manageable, and relieve dryness. They also used botanical hair conditioners to relieve scalp itch and as a dandruff treatment.

aicttwcovThe Aztec, whose empire was established in about A.D. 1100 in what are now Mexico and parts of Mesoamerica, used the berries of the yiamolli (Phytolacco octandra L.) to make a conditioner. They also used sunflower (Helianthus annus) seeds, boiling them to extract the oil. This was then used as a rinse, much like a modern hot oil hair treatment.

North American Indian people from a number of tribes used rendered animal grease as a hair conditioner. To this they added herbs to provide fragrance. The Omaha, who lived on the southern plains, added prairie rose petals (Rosa arkansana) and wild bergamot leaves (Monarda fistulosa L.). The Blackfeet, a Plains tribe, and the Kootenai, who lived in the northern plateau region used needles of the balsam fir (Abies balsamea). The Chippewa (Anishinabe), who lived in the upper Midwest, mixed balsam gum with bear grease. Balsam continues to be a popular ingredient in modern hair conditioners and shampoos.

The Cheyenne, who lived on the northern plains, made a tea of MINT (Mentha arvensis L.) that they used as a hair rinse (See also MINTS, BOTANICAL.) North American Indians who lived in areas where CATTAILS grew, often used their pollen as a conditioner. American Indians living in what are now southern Arizona, California, and Baja California in Mexico rinsed their hair with conditioners made from JOJOBA seeds. (Simmondsia chinensis). Jojoba is another ingredient found in many modern shampoos and hair conditioners.


Sources/Further Reading

Hutchens, Alma R. Indian Herbology of North America. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.

Lust, John, The Herb Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany Database: Food, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native North American Peoples. URL: Downloaded on August 7, 1999.

Prindle, Tara. NativeTech: Cattails. 1994-1998. URL: Downloaded on August 7, 1999.

Vogel, Virgil. American Indian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.