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)  

The Politics of Native Hair Part 1


She couldn’t even say it with a straight face. She tried though—had to give her an “E” for “Effort.” She desperately, passionately wanted me to believe that she believed what she was saying.
“No, I really liked you better with long hair.”

>Dead Silence<

I sat back and smirked. I didn’t say anything because I enjoy awkward pauses. By the way, I wouldn't dare call them “pregnant pauses.” You see, I’m a Blackfeet man and she’s an Assiniboine woman—therefore there actually is a chance that a mere conversation between us could result in procreation. I have nieces and nephews who were conceived by email (in fairness, it DID have an attachment) and a cousin who once got a pretty little Dutch girl named “Klazina” pen pal pregnant with a birthday card.

What I’m saying is that we’re fertile people.

But I digress.

Anyway, the prolonged silence prompted her to continue talking—you know, the way people talk to fill empty space. “I mean, yeah, sure it looks nice short. You look clean cut. But I prefer Indian boys with long hair. There’s just something really, really hot AND ‘cultural’ about Indian boys with long hair.”

That was an Interesting thought, so I figured I’d delve a little deeper into that, “What if I weren’t Native? Would I THEN look better with my short hair?”

She conceded, “Mmmmmmmm…probably, yeah. Other people—non-Natives—generally do not look good with long hair. Jonny Depp does, and Brad Pitt in “’Legends of the Fall’. He looked really yummy. But he always looks yummy. But no, if you weren’t Indian, I’d say keep your hair short.”

Now I was really intrigued, so I was obligated by law to keep digging deeper. “What if you didn’t know that I was Indian? Would I instantly become better looking with this particular shorter haircut?” The possibilities started rolling in my head—this could get good. “Or what if I was of Native descent, but not enough blood to be enrolled? Would you still consider me ‘Indian’ enough to have long hair?”

She thought about it. Obviously she didn’t want to say “yes.” But she looked resolute, like I couldn’t shake her from her principle. “Yeah—if I didn’t know that you were Indian, I’d say that I’d like you better with short hair. But you cut your hair short, and I know that you’re Indian. So yeah, you got uglier. In a loving way, of course.” She smiled.

Ouch. “Of course,” I grimaced.

While I felt vindicated that she realized her logical inconsistency about Indian men and their hair, I had to admit my dismay that, in my friend’s eyes, my attractiveness was vasectomized with a few snips of the scissors. Call me “vain.”


Like pretty much any other topics amongst Natives, the topic of “hair” is fascinating and doesn’t lend itself to just one viewpoint, even amongst Natives. There are, of course, historical issues connected with Natives’ hair; we weren’t always allowed to choose the way we styled our hair. Those historical issues will be discussed later on in this series.

But hair is not only a “historical” thing for us, right? I mean, many Natives revere the past, but we’re also fashionable, contemporary people–it can’t be just about “history,” right? My nephews have all kinds of haircuts, mohawks, faux-hawks, mullets and buzz cuts; my nieces love to color their hair from their stereotypical jet black hair to more, let’s say “vibrant” colors. And every single one of those nephews and nieces also has pictures of them with braids and bushy morning hair. This is a series about hair–we’ll have time to talk about more contemporary AND historical issues.

It’s interesting. I wonder about the perception(s) of hair within our Native societies. I remember in college, when a Native had long hair, there was a presumption that the long-haired Native was “traditional;” I think that there’s usually a perception that a Native with long hair IS, in fact, somehow more Native (or Nativer) than a short-haired Native. In that school context, sometimes the long-haired Natives in school would play into that perception that they were, in fact, “traditional” so that they could spew off some pseudo-religious babble and make the giggling little hippie girls think that were “deep.”

Interestingly, the vast majority of the older “traditional” people that I know tend to have very neatly cut hair. Of course, some have braids, and some have mullets—business up front, party in the back. Many women have the hair hanging down and parted in the middle, straight out of a Cher video, some of the serious “rez” bangs and some have more contemporary hairstyles. Point is, there is no one style—fortunately—that defines Natives. Still, in some people’s eyes, the hair makes the Native.

Does it? Is hair more important to Natives than to other ethnicities?

I’m collecting hair stories. Specifically, I want to know about the significance/lack of significance of hair to Native people.

Please send me your hair stories AND pictures–whether it was a fight that you got into because someone teased you about your hair or it was a man who liked you specifically because of your hair. Or maybe you LOVE your new mohawk. Or possibly you’re just really proud of your mane and want to tell people WHY you grew it out or cut it off. Whatever it is. Please also let me know if I can cite these stories in future writing projects–I think that Indian Country, and OUTSIDE of Indian Country is curious about these stories and photos.

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Comments (72)