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)  

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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well done, G..

  2. Very well written.

    Maybe it’s a Sampson and Delilah thing…Particularly in the past when most of the settlers were highly religious…

  3. Natives are still fighting discrimination everyday since the arrival of the European who wants to dominate everything, everyone, every thought (which is the Creator) to include “religious thought”. 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. Although I’ve succeeded in living with the dominant in their society, I will always acknowledge who I really am: A Native American, First People, First Nation, etc. made and thought into existence by my Creator.

  4. Why do I get so angry at these things? My ancestor’s past is not my own, Yet it is. I grew up in a non- traditional house on the Rez, My mom simply wasn’t into our heritage, but for me I have had an awakening these past few years and I find myself yearning for more. For the first time in my life, I am comfortable in my own skin. I find myself clinging to anything that is part of my Native roots, especially in my art. What i really would like to say about all this crap that has been forced upon us, our people, our past, I cannot due to the use of what some would consider “Salty” language. We can’t change the past, But we can affect the future. We are learning the system… everyone else should be looking out.

  5. In reading, part 1 & 2 of your series, it makes me think actually the opposite of what your saying. Not that I would actually think of cutting my long hair, which has taken me long enough to grow. It makes me think of all my friends, family, and tribal members who choose to wear their hair short. It’s not because they are forced to have short hair, but their decision to make life simplier. Granted there are days I wish my hair was shorter to help make getting ready in the mornings much faster, I choose to keep my hair long. I do so, to help bring back the natural beauty of long hair and to show the ladies in my family that having long hair isn’t that bad. Plus fixing my hair into a Navajo bun isn’t hard either (shorter hair causes more problems in making a bun). So in summary, I believe we keep our hair short to minimize our daily tasks and to gain more time in the day.

  6. When I read part one, my thoughts were, are you serious??? of all the many issues facing all of our Native Nations…Hair? How vain, cause Gyasi was talking about his own issues with his hair. But part two ok, now i get were you are going with this issue!
    My son has long hair and as his mother i had to explain to him why i grew his hair out while he was little and as he grew older he made a choice to keep it long…but all of the misunderstood and hurtful comments about his long hair only made his resolve to keep his hair long stronger. Today he said he really wants to work hard and get into the NBA with his ball skills and his long hair to be a role model to other long haired Native boys!

    I am thankful to all you beautiful indian men who do choose to reclaim your right to have long hair…if that is your wish…more power to you! Skinny braids, thick braids, graying ponytails, curly braided ponytails, light colored braids, long hair all out, long hair kept out of site, shaggie braids, slicked back shinney ones, just keep the fake ones for the Crows! and for those Native males who have short hair…more power to you as well to each his own.

  7. This issue of “Native Hair” is interesting. When I think of those who wear their hair long many types of people emerge in my mind; those who wear it like a “Native Pride” hat or choker, those who wear it because their daddy or uncles wear it with little knowledge of the meaning, and those who wear it with pride and importance of their culture and traditions. I think no matter what the reason, the men who wear their hair long do it because they are proud of where they come from (not that those who have short hair don’t).
    It’s good to see all different types of hair being worn by Native people, it lets the world see that there are all different kinds of “Real Indians” out here and that we don’t all fit into one box. Long hair, short hair, mullets or crew cuts; wear what ever you want and be proud, you’ll always be Indian.

  8. I kinda feel like I have to defend the hair decisions I’ve made for my son. Granted his hair is horrendous when long, that I keep it short on purpose, but it doesn’t make him any less Indian or an Indian who has accepted the ways of the white man. He’s a little Indian boy with hair like wire, there ain’t a thing pretty about it. My little Indian boy is 3/4 and he shows every bit of it. Having long hair doesn’t make you more of an Indian, one could say it that it fuels the stereotype.

  9. “It’s amazing how something as simple as growing hair out of my head can be considered revolutionary.”

    -quote from Chris Rock’s movie, “Good Hair”

  10. hi Gyassi, been a while since we spoke but as all can see your still doin the good work. I have to say thanks for the support and forum to discuss NDN issues like “long hair”. Mine is still long- my son was just like the little boy the article spoke of. When my son was 7 years old his hair had never been cut and he was involved in our traditional ways by HIS choice. he was a beautiful hoop dancer at that age and many were graced by his sincere gift of dancing. I moved to go to grad school to West Texas. My son was made to stay in a room the size of a closet with bars on the windows and a gaurd, not have acess to regular school work- he was made to stay in detention to do his school work while during the day he was forced to copy the dictionary. At recess and at lunch he was forced to stand on the wall with his “thumbs on his seems”- all because he-we have a religious right to our long hair. the school policy was archaic and punitive. I brought this issues to the school board and again there was no “due process” to hear this complaint. this lasted over 8 months when I had yet another meeting with the school pricipal. while in his office he showed me a letter from the state education administration allowing my son to have the same rights as all the rest of the children with his hair long and if fact the school policy was violating his rights. however, the principal (Mr. Fosse)explained to me in true frontier or should I say Pratt spirit- that he would tie the issue up in court for my sons entire academic carreer and my son would have to stay in the jail room the entire time- make a choice.
    Well my son and our family cried for days not having the strength or means to fight this horrible man. We cut his hair. my sons reaction was that he became very deft at playing with school authorities citing that they did not respect him, why should he respet them and skins are so much smarter than the white guys that it was fun to get them all stirred up.This passion gave way to moving from one school to another thru middle school always the leader that was demontrated as a child. my son only danced for his family after that big haircut.
    He will be 21 in 10 days and I couldnt be more proud of him. He says he learned so much as a little guy that all the white folks were afraid of because his hair was long, he danced for healing, and he was NDN. He learned self-preservation and the knowledge of who he is and where he comes from. He now wears his hair in a mohawk now and knows that most of society are only interested on the outside But WE KNOW who we are on the INSIDE and that is something that can’t be cut off or out. true he is graceful, passionate, intelligent, hard working caring and honest young man but I cant help but remember the times he was alone with a 200 pund man giving him swats because of who he was and how i shared in the pain of our ancestors who endured much more for the way we are and wonder if these events didnt deep down affect him adversly. his warrior spirit is strong yet he is balanced. Just rembling now – remembering, glad there was one who made the fight.

  11. Long hair on an Indian man sends something like an electric shock through some women. The white men are threatened by this attraction to Indian men by white women, and so their reaction has been to assert their power to control it so as to soothe their insecurity. This power is to force military style regimentation upon the Indians, to civilize, tame, sanitize, Christianize, and subjugate. While all the Indian lands have to be mapped and allotted by the whites, the Indians’ DNA sequence has to be mapped and patented, also by the whites. The need to control Indian hair and sexuality resides somewhere in the middle of all this.

    The threat/attraction posed by Indian males’ long hair in general is a problem posed by Christian theology, with its emphasis on a paternal deity who represents order, but not Creation. Attached to this insecurity is the historic western male need to subjugate women of all races. Homophobic males and females are especially threatened by long haired Indian men. The idea that there are men who have found a balance within themselves that accepts both male and female attributes, this is threatening to the paternal homophobic overseer. Yet another part of the insecurity is the dilemma posed by European hairiness. Some of these non-Indian people are so hairy that if they didn’t shave, they would acquire a kind of body fur that is bordering upon, well, fur. So that is part of the insecurity, the fear of the beast within I suppose.

    Finally, I’m surprised that AVATAR didn’t show an awful sequence of actions by the corporate military cutting the hair/tentacles of the NaVi, depriving them of their ability to bond with creation on Pandora, their planet. But this is what the Americans regularly attempt to do to the Indians.

  12. Hey, did you notice in Avatar, when they arrived on the planet, the main Avatar was fully matured with a braid already? Nice!! I wish my hair would braid itself as I grew!! lmao.

  13. I see the effects of Pratt in my family and other Native Families. I took Native Studies in college and it really helped me understand the dysfunction of my family. My grandmother and grandfather were in a boarding school for years. Their parents weren’t raising them, so their adult role models were the faculty at the school. They had five girls. I think they wanted to raise them in an environment unlike the one they had endured. As a result, all of their children were drug addicts. They did everything for them, bailed them out of any situation that arose because of their actions and I feel that this is a direct result of not learning Traditional Native Parenting practices and doing the opposite of what the Administration at their school did. They wanted them to have an enjoyable life, and therefore there were no consequences. The daughters children turned out much the same way their mothers did. It has not been until recently that me, my sisters and my cousins have decided to change our ways and not follow in the footsteps of our mothers. We are becoming healthy, drug-free and more connected to our culture. I am raising my three children in a Native way. Letting them lead, but also letting them accept the consequences of their actions. They cannot function if they don’t learn right from wrong and that they need to make the right decision. They need to think before doing. I really liked this posting, you have gained a follower.

  14. When I travel away from my family for a long periods of time (more than 2 days), I take thin strands of hair, begin to braid while I start a prayer for each of my children and partner.
    I was told as a young girl to pray when I braid, whether its sweetgrass or my hair. Pray. Its a ritual I do. My connects me spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally to who I am as a nehiyawiskwew, a mother, a lover, a child of tis land and my culture.
    Our hair had dna in it, it carries our energy, our history,our story. Our hair is more than a aspect of our beauty but reflects who we are.

  15. […] *The Politics of Native Hair Part 2: EXORCISING THE CURSE OF CAPT. RICHARD H PRATT […]

  16. My nephew cut his hair because he was made fun of and the school he went to was 98% native. Historical trauma and its relationship to hair is real and the cutting of Native children’s and people’s hair was a form of assimilation. Unfortunately, racism still exists and our own people perpetuate racist ideology so people continue to use hair as a form of oppression. I do not believe that the hair makes the man or woman but the it is the man or woman who makes the hair so to speak.I think that there is no right and wrong way as long as people are free to make of their hair what they will and just like religion we should not impose our beliefs onto others because this is when we hurt, oppress, and abuse others. I know many men and women with long hair who are far from spiritual and “traditional”. They are alcoholics, drug addicts, abusive, neglectful, prejudice, racist, sexist, and so on. Judge not by how a person wears his or her hair but by the quality of his or her character.

  17. […] on The Politics of Native Hair, from a more Western perspective. I was struck particularly by Part 2: EXORCISING THE CURSE OF CAPT. RICHARD H PRATT, in which he describes attempts to control and assimilate Native people by making them cut off […]

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