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.
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.