Why head flattening?

If you look up this Wikipedia article on head flattening and other ‘cranial modifications’, cultures around the world have practiced this for pretty much the Anthro 101 class explanations you’d expect – group identification (tied to social class or tribe or some such).  In the Pacific NW, many tribes practiced head flattening.  Newborns were subjected to practices to shape their foreheads into a ‘flat’ upward sloping shape.  On the OR coast, the Alsea people were the southern most tribe to practice this.

A handful of Siuslaws were recalled to have flattened heads, and they all had Alsea relatives so presumably it was done by Alsea mothers who had intermarried at Siuslaw.  Siuslaw people, for whatever reason, had not taken up the practice regularly on their own.

Lottie Evanoff recalled at Yachats that Alsea kids teased the Coos and Lower Umpqua kids by calling them ‘seal heads’.  I take it as a compliment – seals are cute!  In return, Lottie called them dllaqi xwiluxw – Hanis for bread head (ie, flat head).

I have not found anywhere that anyone asked Alseas why they flattened their heads.  Maybe anthropologists assumed it was to distinguish themselves from slaves.  Chinooks kidnapped or bought Indians from the south that did not practice head flattening.  The assumption may have been, well it was to distinguish their own tribe from slaves.  That was likely a factor, but apparently not the only one.

Lottie told this story about her Alsea acquaintence John Albert (who worked with JP Harrington at about the same time as Lottie did).  She said, “John Albert had flat head. His mother tried to flatten his daughter’s head. He removed sandbags and told her don’t do that. His mom said yes, you want to have it looking ugly when she has head like a seal.

It’s supposed head flattening makes you look upward. John Albert said his mom would spoil the daughter’s looks….

The Alsea Indians used to say the unflattened head Coos Indians were ‘looking down.’. John Albert said he wanted his daughter to be looking down, not up.

So, the Alseas once thought it helped people to ‘look up’, perhaps to be more spiritual and/or moral people.  An interesting explanation from the culture as to the meaning of the practice.

All in all though, I think we south coast seal-headed types managed fine without the fancy foreheads.


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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2 Responses to Why head flattening?

  1. sofcis says:

    Hahahah, just last week my daughter and husband were asking why people flattened heads. too good.
    thanks patty

  2. shichils says:

    Great timing for that question, how funny! I thought the justification Lottie heard from the older Alseas – that this way people cd ‘look up’ – was pretty interesting and I’d never heard it anywhere else before. Poor John Albert, caught between his mother’s conservative ways and his apparent hope that his daughter would “fit in” in a world where few or no young people had flattened heads.

    You know, I have a suspicion where the inspiration comes from -newborn babies. I remember when Morgan was just born, she had the most hilarious conehead. It is amazing tho’ how quickly newborn’s heads adjust and are ‘normal’ looking -just a few hours. I wonder if some cultures looked at these newly emerged babies, and thought there was something so special about first drawing breath and coming to life (as it were) that maintaining the flat forehead was a way to keep a connection to that moment. Hmmm

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