The Curiosity, NASA’s latest Mars rover, touched down on the Red Planet on August 6, and what was a pretty gee-whiz moment for science fans soon flared into a game of Who’s That Guy?
“That Guy” was a NASA control-room knob-twiddler wearing a mohawk haircut, and since nobody knew who he was, he became “Mohawk Guy.” Now, Mohawk Guy, real name Bobak Ferdowsi, is the nerd heartthrob who threatens to become a bigger story than the Curiosity.
So mainstream America has decided the mohawk is cool again. But does this hairstyle, other than its name, have anything to do with Mohawk Indians anymore? We asked Ray Cook, Mohawk, ICTMN’s opinions editor, who told us the traditional warrior’s hairstyle is better described as a “scalp lock.” “The Mohawk is known as scalp lock because it makes it very hard for an enemy to lift one’s hair for a trophy,” he says. “But, on a practical note—we are a woodland people, bugs and ticks like to hide in lots of hair, a scalp-lock frustrates them too.” Cook points to the paintings of Mohawk artist John Thomas as illustrations of the pre-Colonial Mohawk scalp lock.
It’s significant that the subject of the painting is a lacrosse player wearing a scalp lock—Cook says the haircut is “for those who do battle. Which today means athletes.” Wes Studi also wears a fairly authentic scalp lock as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (and incidentally, in the UK, a mohawk haircut is known as a mohican):
The mohawk first gained popularity among non-Indians in modern times toward the end of World War II, when it was adopted by the “Filthy Thirteen,” a unit of the 101st Airborne Division—and yes, the inspiration for the highly fictionalized 1967 film The Dirty Dozen. Sergeant Jake McNiece of Ponca City, Oklahoma, who is said to be of Native heritage, started the trend—according to a news article from 1994, he joked that it was a Native tradition, but really wore the haircut for sanitary reasons. Some of the members of the Filthy Thirteen followed suit, and a photograph of two mohawk-ed paratroopers applying face paint before a mission was published in Stars & Stripes. But the practice was not widespread.
Jazz musician Sonny Rollins went through a mohawk phase. In 2009, Rollins told NPR that “[t]he mohawk was my attempt to pay homage to the Native Americans. There was a Native American guy that I know that used to come to see me when I was at the old Five Spot. … This was back in the ’50s. That sort of brought that to my attention.”
Military haircuts, though, are not far off from mohawks to begin with—particularly the high-and-tight and the extreme version of it known as a recon. Again we turn to Ray Cook, who served as a U.S. Marine in the mid-70s, who says it’s another connection between the scalp lock and warrior culture. “The Marine Recon fought the scariest war of all,” he says. “Behind enemy lines, undetected as much as possible. To the enemy they were a scourge, a ghost. And the enemy taking trophies of snipers and recon dead was well known, to prove the recon were merely enemy to be treated like dogs, to be proved mortal. So the Recons would do all they could to protect themselves…and to bring back their wounded, and their dead intact. Having a scalp lock might make you, or part of you, less likely to end up your enemy’s trophy.”
So it makes sense that an ex-Marine gearing up for a personal war might take a hairstyling cue from the recon boys—which is how the story unfolds in Taxi Driver. For Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle, the mohawk haircut is a signifier of his deluded transformation into a vigilante.
The next to take up the mohawk were punk rock musicians and their fans—Joe Strummer of The Clash grew a mohawk in the band’s Combat Rock phase:
If you watched MTV during that same period you may remember two female singers who were also famous for their mohawks. One was Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics…
…and the other was Annabella Lwin, the teenaged singer of Bow Wow Wow, whose big hit was a remake of the song “I Want Candy”:
The mohawk came back in the ’90s; rockers recently wearing it include members of Rancid…
Adrian Young of No Doubt…
…and Travis Barker of Blink-182.
In 2010, Jamaican dancehall star and Grammy winner Sean Paul shocked his fans by doing away with his trademark cornrows in favor of a mohawk, which (for reasons unknown to us) he called a “speehawk”:
The actor and wrestler Mr. T sported a mohawk that, along with copious gold jewelry, became his signature look, although he maintained that his hairstyle was inspired not by American Indians but by a photo of African Mandinka warriors in National Geographic.
The mohawk has also become popular among athletes—it’s one of many hairdos David Beckham has experimented with:
Clint Mathis came out wearing a motivational mohawk for a game against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup. And perhaps it worked: He scored a goal in a 1-1 tie that proved adequate to get the American team out of the group stage.
In 2008, members of the Tampa Bay Rays wore mohawks—dubbed “Rayhawks”—as did many of their fans.
And now we have “Mohawk Guy” Bobak Ferdowsi (in case you are wondering about the name, it’s Persian). Why a mohawk? Ferdowsi has explained that he gets a different, creative haircut for each mission, and this time around it happened to be a mohawk.
If it’s all a bit distressing to see mohawks on so many non-Indian heads, perhaps a name change is in order. In 2003, a mummified Iron Age man, dead for some 2,300 years, was discovered in a bog near Clonycavan, Ireland. He was dubbed “Clonycavan Man,” and his distinctive ridge of hair, held in place by plant oil and pine resin imported from the European mainland, has been referred to as “the world’s first mohawk.”
So perhaps these punks and jocks should all ditch their mohawks and instead grow clonycavans. As for a question asked earlier on this page—do Mohawks wear mohawks? Our Mohawk certainly does. “The scalp-lock is as popular today as ever,” Ray Cook says. “I got mine on for the summer, and my five-year-old grandson gets his too, when I get mine.”