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How to secure a porcupine hair roach.

The porcupine hair roach has become an indispensable part of every energetic powwow dancer's outfit. When a dancer wants to accentuate his movement, it is the long, responsive, porcupine guard hairs of his roach (plus his crest feather) that project this rhythm beyond his body.

From the Squamish Powwow just outside of Victoria, British Columbia, to the Art and Culture Center of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the Spirit of the Wolf powwow in Albany, NewYork; the roach has been adopted as a near necessity for most dance outfits. [2]

Some Whispering Wind readers may have purchased, or made, a new roach with plans to hit the dance arena for the first time in the 2015 pow wow season. This article sheds light on the mystery of how to get that roach securely attached to your head. [3] Ways of doing this vary depending upon the style of dancing being pursued. In Adolf Hungry Wolf's Pow Wow Dancer's and Craftworker's Handbook (Skookumchuck: Canadian Caboose Press, 1999. pp. 62-63), Okan Hungry Wolf has sketched several common ways of attaching a porcupine hair roach. Here, two of those methods are revisited via a series of instructional photographs.

Photo 1 : The most common way of tying on a roach is by using cotton shoe laces, (see Photos 8-11) This young dancer has one shoelace which comes from the roach spreader, through the braid hole in the roach base, around both sides of his head, then ties beneath his jaw. A second lace has been threaded through the roach base, about half way down along it's length, then ties with the other lace under his jaw. This lace keeps the roach from flipping side-to-side. If it were threaded through the base any lower, however, it would cinch up the "tail" of the roach into the nape of his neck constricting the roach's profile, and thus the porcupine hair's movement. [1] The orange scarf and beaded headband are not part of this dancer's roach attachment system.

JulyAmsh Pow Wow, State Line, ID, July 2013. Author photograph.

Photo 2 (left): The Braid and Pin Method.

Top view of a roach showing its brightly colored yarn base, and the hole in the base for pulling a scalplock through. (Roach, spreader, and accompanying pieces are from the writer's collection.)

Photo 3: Top view of a rawhide roach spreader. Notice the hole, which is made to line up with a hole in it's roach's base. These holes can be used for either threading a thin braid of hair up through, or threading tie thongs down through to secure the roach to the dancer's head. This roach spreader is shaped in an early to mid twentieth century style popular among western Montana people, and dancers from the Columbia River Plateau. It's circular front is designed to actually spread, or more correctly, flatten the front hair of the roach. The purpose of most spreaders, however, is to give a solid foundation for the crest feather sockets or rockers, not to actually spread the roach hair.

Photo 4: A thin scalplock is tightly braided at the place on the head where the roach position is desired. The holes in the base and spreader will go where this braid begins.

Photo 5: The braid is pulled up through the holes in the roach base and spreader.

Photo 6: Once the braid is threaded through the base and spreader, it is secured with a stick called a roach pin, which acts as a toggle. This stick is pushed through the braid above the spreader. To hold the roach securely in place, the braid must be pulled snugly and the roach and spreader pushed down as the pin is inserted so that there is no slack between the roach and the wearer's head.

Traditionally, the pin is inserted from the right side, and is often decorated with beadwork and feathers, marks of war honors from days of old.

Photo 7: These two boys have made use of their long hair by attaching their roaches with a pin through a braid atop their heads. Both boys have added a string to the mid section of their roaches which runs through the roach base, around to the front of their necks, and there is tied in a bow. The boy on the right is adjusting his. This string, usually a cotton shoelace, keeps the tail of the roach from flipping around to the front when they really get into their dancing.

Spokane Indian Days Pow Wow, Wellpinit, Washington, 1980.

Photo 8: Chin Tie Method:

A tie thong threads from the spreader through the hole in the roach's base. This thong holds the spreader to the roach base, and goes around the wearer's head to tie beneath the chin.

Photo 9: Bottom view of the roach showing two thongs: [1] the chin tie thong which comes from the hole in the roach's base, and [2] a second thong, threaded through the yarn of the base. This second thong will wrap from the back of the neck to the front and tie near the Adam's

Photo 10: This dancer, like a few others, finds it more comfortable to have his lower tie (the green lace) up on his chin instead of his throat.

Photo 11: Yet another variation on ties, the lower tie cinches around the ones from the top of his head, to tie at the back of his head instead of on his chin or throat.


(1.) Jerry Smith cautions readers about the placement of the lower tie in "Roach: Tie Placement". Moccasin Tracks, March, 1982, p. 13.

(2.) In the Northwest, from Montana into Washington State, and throughout Southern Plains, the roach is still the favorite for vigorous young dancers. More and more traditional dancers from this region, though, are wearing "horned hats" (horned ermine bonnets), or "stovepipe" bonnets- the straight up style of feather headdress often associated with the Blackfeet.

(3.) A concise history of the porcupine hair roach, along with photos of contemporary dancers' roaches, was recently offered by Craig Jones in Whispering Wind 42:1,pp. 34-35. If you have access to older magazines, look up James Howard's "The Roach Headdress" in American Indian Hobbyist (6:7 & 8, pp. 89-94) for a detailed history of roaches, and discussion of tribal styles.

Thanks goes to the subjects in these photos.
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Author:Thompson, Scott
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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