April 13, 2010

Repost | The Politics of Native Hair, pt 3

Another delightful addition to the discussion on Native Hair!:
[Original post can be found at Thing About Skins blog]

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.