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.

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

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  1. My friend and I found our conversation centering around Natives and their hairdo’s. We were talking about bad ass mullets, wicked bangs, and everything in between. I jokingly asked when he was gona rock The Mullet lol. My friend was wondering where a certain hairstyle originated from, whether it came from the blackfeet or cree and suddenly we came to an appreciation for all the hairstyles Native people proudly sport. He said, “our hair is like an expression of ourselves. Its a form of art.” I had to agree with that and told him I would share it with u cuz u would appreciate such statements. Although him and I have much different hairstyles, we are both equally proud of our hair. It really does give a visual of where we have been and what we’ve been doing. If The Hair is clean and fixed, it shows a lot about who a person is. On the contrary, there is bed head, greasy locks, and plain ole bad hair days bc people just woke up, have been unclean, or have had better days. Either way, short or long, messy or styled to perfection, spiritual reasons or not, Native people are showing a part of themselves to others by fixing their hair a certain way. For the most part, Native people take great pride in their hair bc there is a lot of pride in being Native! For 500 years, our way of life was attacked and the ones before us sacrificed a lot so I could be alive today and wear my hair however I choose. If a Native man or woman chooses to have long hair, its like a symbol and appreciation towards our ancestors that fought for that right and if a Native man, like my friend, were a rapper, he wouldn’t rap about 20 inch rims, he’d be on stage rappin about his 20 inch braids!

  2. You say “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…” You should check out New Moon from the Twilight series. The Natives in that movie have short hair. Although when you first meet Jacob’s character in the movie he has long hair and his frieds do too, but when they grow up and take on the change to shapeshift into wolves, their hair is usually short. Those Native men who turn into wolves are pretty darn good looking too. Does it really matter how long your hair is? I had long hair as a girl, then cut it short after I started college, I recently started to let it grow at the request of a friend and now I like it longer. But the summers are a killer with long hair for me at least. LOL

    Take care!

    • That’s certainly a fair point, although I’ve never seen “Twighlight.” I heard it was good from some folks who’s movie opinions I respect (e.g., NOT 13 year old girls), but just haven’t had the time. Maybe soon.

      Ok…follow up question–perhaps NON-Native moviemakers see us as more contemporary than Native moviemakers do? I mean, “Dance Me Outside” was incredible, and probably had some of the most hilarious/realistic dialogue of any “Native” movie that I’ve seen…in my humble opinion…and it was by a non-Native.

      Just a thought. Your argument makes sense though–certainly! I stand corrected.

      • Another movie you should check out is Smoke Signals, that was by a Native Director, Chris Eyre, based on a book by Sherman Alexie. In that movie both of the main characters have long hair, even Gary Marshall (the Dad) has long hair, (supposedly in his younger years) but then has short hair as an older man. His son (Adam Beach) cuts his hair as a sign of mourning for the death of his father, fter he realizes that this father did love him even tho he left home.

        Long hair just looks good on Native men. It’s what caught my attention when I first saw you.

  3. At the risk of exposing myself as a Twilight fan, the boys in the “wolf pack” have a very good reason for short hair that is explained in the books…the short of it has to do with the transformation itself-as a wolf with long shaggy hair versus one with shorter hair… Im a huge fan of the books but only a fan of the movies because Im a huge fan of hot shirtless brown boys 😉 Casting in my head was better than the on screen actors lol

  4. […] *The Politics of Native Hair Part 3 […]

  5. Hair is an extension of you and your thoughts, ideas, opinions, likes, and I think most people wear their hair in a style that is most flattering to them. I’m growing my hair out again and there are many times that I see a woman with cute cropped hair and I want to cut it. However, I think at this point in my life, it is easier to be able to put it up and not have to fuss with it like I would have to if it were short because my hair has taken on to doing a flip at the ends and frizzing up at the ends, thus I us a flat iron. I also think that I having longer hair will better help me to hide qualities of myself that I don’t find flattering (the fullness of my face brought on by the weight I gained when I was pregnant with my daughter and I am still struggling to lose). I think that shorter hair would flatter me if I were many pounds lighter and my face slimmer. Thus, I think is the reason I am growing my hair. Is it spiritual? Yes, because it is where I am in relation to life. It is where I am emotionally and physically which is connected to my spirituality.

  6. Oh wow, I know the first two and had no idea they were father and son! I thought brothers or cousins, geez… That was cool to see them and read what they had to say. My boyfriend gave the same answer about his hair, that it contains his power, so he doesn’t even like it to be touched. However he does not grow it very long per se. Also he doesn’t want our son to grow his hair long for fear of being mistaken for a girl (because that is what happened to him when he was young). My answer to this is that I don’t want my son to be assimilated and that we should grow his hair long to show people that someone with long hair is not necessarily a girl, so in a way it would fight gender stereotypes as well. I think I am at a place though where I will just let my son decide, after all it is his hair. I will grow it out for now but if he wants it cut, sure I will be sad but I’ll take him to get it cut.

  7. I was mistaken for a girl a number of times when I was a little boy, and why does it always have to be the store cashier that assumes that the little boy is a cute little girl? If you ask any half decent looking indian guy who had long hair when they were little they will tell you the same thing.
    It’s up to the parents if they want to instill that pride in having long hair for a child. I never wanted to cut my hair but it was my father who would tell me that only “warriors” had long hair. I knew that we weren’t “warriors” because of our long hair. But what he was telling me was that our ancestors were warriors, and we were honoring them with our long hair. Honestly, I wanted to believe that I a was a “warrior” too.


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