Why Navajo Hair Matters: It’s Our Culture, Our Memory, and Our Choice

indian-chief-lightOn Tuesday, after Labor Day weekend, my children went back to school. The week before, I had taken my son to the barber to get a haircut—but it was his choice. Such was not the case with another Navajo boy, Malachi Wilson, who was refused entry into his first day of kindergarten and told he would have to cut his hair to get an education. Ironically, Malachi’s school district, despite being 81% white, is in Seminole, Texas, has an American Indian warrior with long flowing hair as their mascot and refer to their students as “Indians and Maidens.”  Malachi was allowed to attend school after his mother contacted the Navajo Nation and provided proof her son was Native American. He received a religious exemption to allow him to keep his long hair, which was neatly braided and hanging down his back.

I have often heard that, for Navajo people, hair is our memory. Before my traditional Navajo wedding, my long hair (it went down to my waist) was washed with yucca root. It foams up quickly. Afterward, my hair was brushed with a bundle of stiff grass called a be’ezo. I still have that bundle and I occasionally brush my children’s hair with it. The act of caring for the hair, one relative to another, like my grandmother and family did for me, is an expression of love to me. Sharing it with my children feels natural. In fact, I cannot imagine not doing it. I can still hear my mother, my shi má making comments in Navajo as she brushed my hair.

My Aunt Lucy tied it up for my wedding and bound the long strands up into a traditional bun called a tsiiyéél which is wrapped in white sheep’s wool spun into yarn. This is how I wore my hair to my wedding that night in a hogan (an eight-sided traditional Navajo dwelling). I remember walking in: a fire lit in the middle bathed my relatives’s faces and my husband’s relatives’ in a golden glow as they knelt on the dirt floor and smiled at us. I wore a traditional woven dress and my husband wore his traditional Mohawk regalia. His people are from the Eastern woodlands of New York state and his garb, including a guhsto:wa (feather headdress), were strange and foreign to my Navajo family’s eyes. The walls were adorned with the Navajo rugs my grandmother wove in her traditional Storm pattern.

It was as we say in Navajo, nizhóní, beautiful. And I believe the hair cannot be viewed as separate from all of that. The care we give it, the washing, the adornment, the way our relatives dress— it represents that we are a part of our people, that we are Diné, Navajo.

Working with our hands, we human beings create a beauty—manifestations of ideas that spring from our imaginations—that is basic to our humanity. The logs that made up the hogan that my family built for our wedding were beautiful in their rough-hewn state. The wood was warm and golden and made a spiral pattern in the roof above our heads. It hid the night sky from view (Navajo weddings are held at night). That same night sky where, as a child of suburbia, I first saw the Milky Way spread across the sky and realized in shock that the night sky was full, not empty. It fundamentally changed the way I viewed the world. In that brightly lit mess of stars marching across the night sky, I understood that the natural world is not filled with darkness, but simply with things I cannot see, and that the world around me possesses infinite possibility.

The most traditional Navajo man I knew was my shi cheii, my grandfather. And, oddly enough, he had short hair. I once asked him why he had cut his hair, since so many men of his generation still had their long hair. He explained that it was because when he was in Oklahoma working, none of the women knew how to tie his hair up into a tsiiyéél. He was a bit of a joker, so I wasn’t sure if this was a serious answer, and I suspected that maybe he just liked the American style. But I also knew instinctively that the pain of being separated from everything he knew, even his language (he only spoke Navajo) had marked him. He lost his hair but he had returned to his family earning cash, working for the railroad to get our ranch through a lean period.

But still, for my grandfather, as for my son—his great-grandson—it was their choice, they made it for themselves. It is this, the right of our people to meet the outside world self-confidently and on our own terms that is vital to our success in it. Five-year old Malachi’s long hair was not, as the Seminole School District claimed, “disruptive or distractive to the school environment”—no, his hairstyle represented the love of his family, the supportive net of his culture and a belief that being Navajo is something that can be a part of this world.

I think about these things when I think about that my son and Malachi. Two little Navajo boys with their hair different lengths, both supported in their decisions by their families and loved by them. Malachi only received an exemption, and the school district’s dress code remains in effect; I’m concerned that some other boy could still be turned away for the length of his hair. I’m concerned that the school does not see that what we are talking about is not only about hair, but also about respect for our culture and our right to be Navajo in the way that feels right to us.

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