“No good deed goes unpunished.”
Clare Boothe Luce

I was just a little kid, but I remember when my grandpa wrote a book called “The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfeet Elders Told It.” I remember looking out the window of our trailer over at my grandpa and grandma’s trailer as my uncle helped him load his and my grandma’s suitcase. I remember my smiling sisters throwing their bags into the trunk of my grandpa’s little Ford Escort—my beautiful little grandma Rose in the passenger seat—and me crying because my playmates/heroes were going to be gone for some time (my grandpa didn’t want to take me because, rumor was, that I was an especially rotten kid).

That book was a big deal, and it seemed like our people were proud of it. It came from the pen/typewriter of a Native man—a Blackfeet man—who wanted to see our stories told forever. The Native man was uneducated. He ran away from boarding school in sixth grade, therefore the grammar was imperfect and sentence structure left much to be desired, admittedly. Still, he was wise in Blackfeet traditional ways and he also understood certain things about human nature. That is, he knew that our Native ways—like all ways—will inevitably change, and that if young Natives are going to acquire the knowledge from our elders, the elders are going to have to employ different means of teaching. In fact, my grandpa wrote that the reason he wrote this book is because:

“All history the Native learns by heart, and must pass it on to the little ones as they grow up…It’s these days that the younger generation of every nationality do not have ears for such things. These young people are just too busy being smarties, radical, militant, with no respect for their elders. They do not want to listen to anyone except themselves…From all of this, our oral prehistory of us Natives is dying away and being forgotten.”

I think that history shows that my grandpa (and many other elders) was right. Now, many tribes preserve their languages by CD-ROMs and DVDs. Native languages are taught on-line. Although he was not a great writer and his plan was not perfect, my grandpa took the initiative to do, in his opinion, the right thing.

And he was punished for it.

Now don’t get me wrong, to this day, thankfully, many people still speak about my grandpa with respect and some even with reverence. But there was a substantial minority of people, a very vocal minority, who made their displeasure known. This vocal minority did not like the fact that my grandpa put our Creation stories and language into print so that all nationalities could see. I remember uncomfortable talks, conversations and whispers that said “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor.”

The criticisms hurt my grandpa deeply. He knew that he wasn’t above reproach. Heck, he expected criticism where he didn’t tell the story as well as he could have, or where he used bad grammar. That was fair game. But to question his intent or motivations seemed unfair; after all, he thought that he was doing this for our people. And frankly, it seemed somewhat cowardly for someone to criticize a person for doing a good thing that they were unwilling to do themselves.

It seemed like he deserved better than that.

Now, I am not a little kid anymore but I see that the same very vocal minority wants to punish every good deed in Indian Country. I paid close attention to the Elouise Cobell litigation and settlement and am amazed at the meanness and anger of the comments directed at her. Like my grandpa, she recognized that there was a need; she recognized that the U.S. took advantage of Natives for a long time and was not making any effort to make things right. Therefore, she proactively took steps to fix that situation—to right wrongs and address problems. Seems like a good thing.

Still, were her efforts perfect?

Not by a long-shot. I’m sure that if one was to ask Ms. Cobell, she would tell you that there were things—legally, administratively, and personally—that she and her team could have done better. She, like my grandpa, is not above reproach, and we should always think critically about our leadership. In fact, I’ll bet that she can probably point to a million mistakes that we’ve missed and don’t see, but she sees because she’s been looking over these documents for many years. My guess is that she’s probably her worst critic about this lawsuit and welcomes legal and administrative criticisms.

Still, it seems somewhat cowardly when people charge Elouise with the same criticisms that my grandpa faced: “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor,” “colluder.” She deserves better than that. For example, suggesting that Miss Cobell colluded with the government is silly and should be insulting to our collective intelligence. In the Cobell litigation, federal officials working on behalf of the government were charged with contempt of court twice for not producing documents that would help paint a clearer picture of the mismanagement. I think—not being an insider on the proceedings myself—that the government utilized every single procedural mechanism not to allow a settlement to happen.

But somehow she was working with the government?

In my estimation, this Native woman is a hero, a warrior. She is a hero because she was willing to do something that nobody else was willing to do—man or woman, Native or non-Native. She was willing to take initiative and take tiny, frustrating steps to actually solve a problem while most of us were just complaining. She is a warrior because she put her words into action, when most of us were content with just words; I mean, really—if she hasn’t brought this lawsuit, would anybody else have? I doubt it.

She’s a warrior.

We need to protect our heroes and encourage our warriors to take bold steps to help our people, like protecting our traditions or bringing lawsuits against the government. And while “protecting our heroes” does not mean that we shouldn’t critique them—they need to be questioned just like anyone else—those criticisms and questions should be “within family”–not in mainstream publications and in front of TV cameras. In short, we must not allow this small and very vocal minority to shoot down our Native warriors publicly. Moreover, while questioning the work and methods of our heroes is fair game, it seems somewhat cowardly to assault our own warriors’ integrity and question their honesty simply because we disagree with their work.

If we do not protect our heroes, at some point the small and very vocal minority is going to create a situation where no Native wants to take initiative to help our people. In that situation, no Native will want to be a warrior because they understand that no good deed goes unpunished and everyone only pays attention to the flaws. Pretty soon, the only do-gooders will be white folks and non-Natives who want to “save” us. At that time, all of Native peoples’ most noble will be in corporations quietly achieving success without the stress and disrespect of constantly pointed fingers. Whether we agree or disagree with our warriors’ battles, in my humble estimation, we need to support our warriors and our heroes, like Elouise Cobell. We need to ensure that that all parties—Natives, non-Natives, and the mainstream media—know that we truly appreciate the efforts of our warriors and, although we might disagree with them, we will not tolerate personal attacks against our warriors.

Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 4:05 am  Comments (31)  

The Politics of Native Hair Part 3

Interviewing folks for this “Hair” series reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite movies, “The Usual Suspects.” “I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.”

Similar to “The Usual Suspects,” there seems to be a subconscious (or unconscious) awareness of hair amongst many Natives. Obviously that’s true of certain folks–some wear our “Hair Awareness” on our sleeves (or scalps). For example, there are some folks who place a specific significance on Natives’ right to grow our hair—a right that was not always guaranteed—that is similar to our other rights that were forcibly taken away at one time, like language and ceremonies. As reader, Yvonne Meyers, articulated:

I’m Native to the core and first and foremost and that is the essence of my being and spirituality and I will never surrender my spirit which encompasses and supercedes the regular five senses. They are still trying to kill the “Indian” in Natives but with most they will never succeed. I’m so proud that my tribal family still does whatever they need to do to keep the Native spirit and ways alive and they are succeeding. We speak our Native tongue, practice our spirituality, keep our ceremonies and traditional ways alive to this day. And we will do so.

Still, the more interesting point–to me–is that that the Hair Awareness even goes for those Natives who do not subscribe to a particular spiritual or political belief about the significance of our hair. Perhaps the Hair Awareness is a subconscious response to the years that our immediate ancestors weren’t allowed to express themselves and/or follow their tradition? Or maybe they simply look good with long hair and play it off as “cultural?” Maybe the long hair is to ensure that people do not confuse us as being something other than Native–a badge of courage, boldly welcoming discrimination? Or maybe it’s something as simple and as beautiful as simply “wanting to be like dad,” who also has long braids?

I introduce you to some brave and proud souls–generous Natives who were willing to 1) grant me some time (I can be quite annoying) and 2) answer some questions, 3) be photographed and share their thoughts on a public stage. I am thankful for them and their thoughts and images–please share the gratitude. The cool thing is, all of these are contemporary adults and kids, doing contemporary stuff–these aren’t staged pictures, where these guys walk around as white people all week and then, Clark Kent-style, turn into Indians during the weekend. These are impromptu shots and interviews, and fittingly, most of them have substantially different notions about what hair means or doesn’t mean to them.

Although I do not try to be an objective journalist, I will try to stay as close to their words as possible. Also, I am probably the 2nd worst photographer in the world (right after anyone who takes a picture of me), so please forgive the odd lighting and thumb prints on the lens. So without further to-do, first, the “long hairs“:

Bearon Old Coyote

Bearon is a 16 year old singer. He sings with the Eagle Warrior drum, and also does Coast Salish singing. He is a member of the Suquamish Tribe. He didn’t offer a whole lot of explanation for why long hair was important to him–nothing religious, per se. Yet, he did feel that it’s important because “his power comes from his hair,” (he didn’t clarify exactly what type of power he got from his hair, but he’s 16 and at a pow-wow. Lots of distractions there.) but he did explain that he got that explanation from his dad. More on that later. More importantly, however, he said that he wanted to grow his hair “just like daddy.”

Who is “daddy,” you ask?

James Old Coyote

This handsome fella is a member of the Mandan tribe. He is the “daddy” largely responsible for Bearon’s Hair Awareness–the one who could provide an explanation of the “power” line of reasoning for not cutting off their hair. James told me that, realistically, he knows that his strength would not miraculously disappear if he were to cut his hair off. He’s cut it off several times, for various reasons. Still, he explained that he received his first haircut when he was in second or third grade and he got really sick. His dad, as dad’s are sometimes wont to do, told him that the reason it happened was because he chopped off his locks.

Lesson learned.

Amanda Benally

Amanda was kind enough to give me a very informative interview. She is Navajo (if you couldn’t guess from her last name), and is one of the new generation of Native leaders working in education at a tribal school. She explains that her “ts’eyeel” (hairbun) holds memories–that it not only has symbolic value, but also functional value. In fact, the ts’eyeel helps to keep her thoughts together, keeps her centered and is a source of wisdom. She was never allowed to cut her hair as a girl, and one time she did get it cut–without consent—and she had to explain it to her grandmother. She feels–as a matter of her opinion, as opposed to her teachings–that she would be “less Navajo” if she cut off her hair. It is a integral part of her Navajo (as opposed to Native/Indian) identity.

The Aspiring Long Haired

Lawrence Miguel

Lawrence is Cree, and has kept his hair short for quite some time. He doesn’t necessarily see any religious/philosophical significance to hair, but he knows that a lot of Natives do. His reason for starting to grow his hair out is because he is “starting to dance again,” and just got a new roach. The roach “sits on his head better” with longer hair. Short and sweet explanation.

The Happily Short Haired

Joe Price

“Navajo Joe” is actually “Navajo and S’klallam Joe.” Upon first conversation, Joe concedes that he really doesn’t have any spiritual beliefs about hair. After a few minutes of talking, he started to realize that perhaps there IS some spiritual component to the way that he takes care of his hair. First, his father always cut it; his father still cuts it to this day. Moreover, his father always burned him and his brothers’ hair–never let go in the trash. The reason why, according to Joe, is that his dad didn’t want anyone to “put medicine on them.” He said, “I never really thought of the spiritual significance of my hair. I thought only people with long hair thought like that. I never had long hair.”

In sum…there really is no general rule about Native people’s thoughts on hair (thank God) other than that hair does carry SOME significance. Obviously pretty much any Native movie–even those made by Natives–tend to put a long black ponytail or braids on every single one of us, that’s thankfully not the case. We do have individuality!!! In fact, at any particular pow-wow there’s mohawks and braids and bangs and mullets and crew cuts.

The folks who DO have long hair–as shown in the comments of previous posts–do sometimes implicate tradition. Still, you’re just as likely to find a tradition that requires a shorn head as one that requires long hair. However, it seems like MOST Natives do give some special meaning to hair. It’s just that sometimes, it seems, that we’re not quite sure how to articulate the rule or tradition that we’re to follow–we just know that there’s a tradition there. Similar to The Usual Suspects–we still see value in our parents’ ways, even if we can’t always necessarily articulate them.

Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 7:58 am  Comments (9)  

Repost: Stop the racist attacks on our children

From Indian Country Today.

By Valerie Taliman, Today correspondent

Story Published: Mar 10, 2010

Story Updated: Mar 10, 2010

Just as we think we’re making progress, another hate crime rears its ugly head. And this time, it’s against our children.

Last week the Web site ran an advertisement headlined “Native Extraction Service” with a photograph of three young Native boys. The service offered to round up and remove First Nations youth like wild animals, and “relocate them to their habitat.”

The text of the ad read: “Have you ever had the experience of getting home to find those pesky little buggers hanging outside your home, in the back alley or on the corner??? Well fear no more, with my service I will simply do a harmless relocation. With one phone call I will arrive and net the pest, load them in the containment unit (pickup truck) and then relocate them to their habit.”

They’re talking about our children.
It’s a classic hate crime, carried out for the sole purpose of inciting racism and hate against indigenous peoples.

The message is clear: Native people are like pests or vermin, and can be disposed of by simply calling a free service to have them “extracted.”

It was the cyberspace equivalent of a “Wanted” poster, reminiscent of bounties once paid for Indian scalps in the old West. And in my view, it’s a classic hate crime, carried out for the sole purpose of inciting racism and hate against indigenous peoples.

First Nations leaders from Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said they want police to investigate the ad as a hate crime. They are joined by an outcry from Native leaders in Washington state and Indian country at-large who know that hate often translates to violence.

Ironically, the photo that posted on its site was stolen from Longhouse Media, a nonprofit arts and media organization based in Seattle, Wash., with a stellar record for making quality films about Native people by Native people.

Those three minors labeled as “pests” actually won awards for their first documentary film, “March Point,” which tells their poignant coming of age story in a Native American community near Seattle poisoned by industrial pollution. The photo was part of a copyrighted media kit created to promote the film, and clearly showed their faces.

Tracy Rector, Longhouse Media executive director, said the use of their photo in such a “hateful and demeaning way was deeply hurtful to these young men and their families, and to the Native community as a whole.

“This ad could intimidate and incite violence against indigenous youth in North America, and we are joining with Manitoba chiefs to call for an end to hate crimes such as these. We want to see the perpetrators brought to justice.”

Author and poet Sherman Alexie, a founding board member of Longhouse Media, called for collective action. “As much as the world has changed for indigenous people in good ways, there are still many violent and hateful folks out there who seek to harm us, and we must condemn them in print and in action, and we must do this together.”

While the legal rights of these young men were violated, is protecting the identity of the racist person who placed the ad. The online publication admits that while they monitor their sites, “this ad slipped through the cracks.”
Not a single person thought there was something horribly wrong with this ad? No one?

As a former newspaper editor, I can tell you that’s a shoddy excuse. Does no one read the content before it is published? Sales representatives, copy editors and managing editors are responsible for their content. Not a single person thought there was something horribly wrong with this ad? No one? Clearly, the editorial staff needs some cultural sensitivity training.

People who minimize the impact of the racist ad are ignoring the fact that hundreds of Native women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada. The Stolen Sisters project, with the help of Amnesty International, exposed this dark side of Canada’s human rights record in 2004 with a scathing report.

More than 500 aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada over the past 20 years. A Native woman in Canada is five times more likely to die a violent death than a woman of any other race. In the U.S., one in three Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, according to Justice Department statistics.

Yet Canadian officials have done little to help. If 500 white women had been kidnapped and brutally murdered, you can bet there would be a national outcry.

Walter Lamar, a twice-decorated FBI special agent and former national director of law enforcement for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said it was hard to imagine why a news organization would publish such a sinister advertisement.

“Those willing to demonstrate their hate publicly are equally capable of violence,” said Lamar, who now owns a firm that specializes in helping to reduce violence and drug abuse on reservations. “As a former FBI agent and Blackfeet Nation citizen, I have seen firsthand the carnage left by those consumed by racist hatred. History can produce example after example of racist hatred being translated to violence.”

He ought to know – Lamar’s career includes working crime scenes for the 9/11 terrorist bombings, the hunt for Green River serial killer in Washington, the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, and the fiery siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

Walt and I grew up on the Navajo Nation, where hate crimes have been commonplace for more than 100 years. In towns bordering our reservation like Gallup and Farmington, N.M., brutal crimes against our people date back to the 1870s when white residents used Navajos for target practice.

The worst of these crimes occurred in the 1970s, when three Navajos were found bludgeoned, mutilated and burned. They had been tortured with firecrackers in their noses and private parts by three white Farmington teenagers. The history of hatred and attacks on our people was chronicled in Rodney Barker’s book “Broken Circle.”

In 2006, yet another Navajo man was beaten to death in Farmington by three white men in a racially-motivated hate crime. They were eventually convicted, but most often we do not see justice for crimes committed against us.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recognized the problem and proposed a large-scale investigation of racism and hate crimes in border towns of seven states in 2003, but the Bush administration refused to fund it.
More than 500 aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada over the past 20 years.

In response, the Navajo Nation recently formed its own Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and is moving forward to document these crimes, and to foster greater public awareness and improved relations with border towns.

Everyone who believes in human rights must speak out against hate crimes and demand an end to the racism, hatred and violence. Our silence is our consent.

Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is president of Three Sisters Media, which offers publishing, social media and public relations services. She is also an award-winning journalist specializing in environmental, social justice and human rights issues. She is based in Albuquerque, N.M. Contact her at

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 9:17 pm  Comments (1)  

The Politics of Native Hair Part 2


I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is good in his sight. It is not necessary for Eagles to be Crows. We are poor..but we are free. No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die…we die defending our rights.
Sitting Bull

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
Capt. Richard H. Pratt

The truth is, this whole “Politics of Native Hair” thing is not new at all. In fact, Native hair has been cursed to be a political hot button for at least the last 139 years.

Those politics continue.

See, this beautiful little Native boy, Adriel Arocha, and his parents were some of the most recent people to discover the political nature of Indian hair–the 150 year old curse for Native people. His parents discovered the curse that broke hundreds of thousands of Indian hearts and crushed many Native parents. They were hit with the same curse that caused Native children to be strangers in their homelands, as well as in the schools into which they were forced to attend. This curse vitiated Native parental authority and robbed so many Indian parents of the ability to even learn how to be proper parents. In fact, Native parenting suffers to this day because of this of the kids that were stolen away from them, that said “You are not allowed to raise your kids how you want them to be raised because your ways are inferior.”

It was the very first “big government,” but it was big government that intruded into the very most personal and intimate activity–how we raise our kids.

It’s the Curse Of Richard H. Pratt.

Richard Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879, the first off-reservation boarding school for Native kids. Carlisle, of course, is famous for creating a high-speed form of football with an all-Native team, and later for Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete in the world. The school is also famous for stealing many kids away from their Native parents and depriving a group of Native kids of their homeland. Homeless. Pratt, like many other white liberals since him, wanted to “help” Natives by telling us what’s best for us and our children. Oddly, we still allow those people who think that they know what’s best for us Natives affect our kids still. We put them in positions to teach our kids, some of them to write in our publications, and some of them infiltrate our ceremonies.

Adriel’s parents chose to fight Pratt’s demon and exorcise his curse. They were determined that Richard H. Pratt would not steal their child, nor dictate how they were going to raise this beautiful little Indian boy. We will discuss the actual controversy surrounding Adriel later–but still, before moving on, I think the most obvious first question that one might raise is “why?” That is, what is it about Native hair–in the eyes of those folks seeking to create conformity in Native people–that makes them see our hair as the key to subduing our spirit?

With that question, I defer to many of the informative comments (thanks for all of the great comments!) in the The Politics of Native Hair, Part 1. As the comments seemed to show, there’s just something about Natives’ hair that those who seek to “kill the Indian” need to get. They have to have it. And perhaps it’s as my big brother Brooklyn Baptiste pointed out, that if we “Lose too many of our attributes and we will be as common as the next population but in our own land and only a tribal card to show for it.” Maybe the goal is just as simple assimilation–to take away our Native characteristics one attribute at a time, until we’re just blended in with the rest of the consumer population. Americans.

Perhaps. I’m not sure I believe that. The historical desire to remove our hair from our heads seems deeper than that. Almost a spiritual longing that creates that need to have our hair. And although I disagreed with a decent portion of what commenter Jaime Perez said, I thought that the following was very powerful:

Saying that it’s “just hair” is adopting the oppressor’s way of thinking. This country is an assimilation beast. From Manifest Destiny to the cultural appropriation of the nuage (sic) hippy movement.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. Please continue to send your thoughts on “why?” Still, it seems fair to say that even if Native hair doesn’t have any significance to us, the Natives, it obviously has some serious importance to those who see it as a source of power/pride for us, and want to deprive us of it. Right?

Still, the point of this article is that General Pratt’s curse lives on to this very day. There are still those folks who see power in our locks and want to subdue our spirits by cutting our hair. Adriel Arocha (and yes, others around the Nation and in Canada) show that. Adriel was only 5 years old when the controversy started. My guess? He wanted to simply go to school and play with his classmates and play-doh and kickball. I don’t pretend to know Adriel, but I can almost certainly guess that this little Native kid did not want to be embroiled in a court battle over his religious beliefs.

But he’s a warrior. He’s learning at an early age. He’s never cut his hair; his father taught them that he should only cut his hair during major life challenges, such as the death of a loved one. Similar to the way that many of the commenters in Part 1 believe.

Adriel is expressing his religious beliefs–putting his faith into actions at a very early age. And what did he get in exchange for his strong faith–for walking his talk? Did he get congratulations and praise? Possibly rewards from teachers and principals?

No, instead the curse of General Pratt struck Adriel’s family–the curse that tells Indian parents that they cannot raise Indian children as they see fit. The curse that wants to kill the Indian and save the man.

The parents recognized the curse–they were educated and tried to take preemptive actions. They didn’t want to be involved in a court battle either. Instead, they understood that the school district’s policy does not permit long hair for boys, so they applied for a religious exemption before the school year started.

When Adriel came to school with two braids, this little 5 year old was forced to take classes by himself. The Needville Independent School District tried to force him to stuff his hair into his shirt collar. They tried to force him to meet privately with his teacher, away from his classmates, because of his hair. The school district said that he had to wear his “hair in his shirt during recess, on field trips, and on the school bus.”

The Needville Independent School District said–just like was said 139 years ago–“You are not allowed to raise your kids how you want them to be raised because your ways are inferior.” It took a federal Judge to tell Adriel’s parents that their ways aren’t inferior. That judge told Adriel that he wasn’t strange for wearing his hair as his religious beliefs said that he should. The judge ruled that the School District’s policy violated state law and the U.S. Constitution by punishing the American Indian kindergartner for religious beliefs that require him to wear his hair long. The Judge said that he would not allow the curse of General Pratt to kill this particular Indian boy’s “Indianness.”

Still, make no mistake about it, the curse is alive and well. The political nature of Native hair is not going anyplace anytime soon.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 7:34 am  Comments (17)