From Sellouts to the American Indian Movement: How Long Hair and Braids Continue to Defy Erasure

I’m going to decode some deep self-hating language.  This will be a sneak peek into the modern world of Native America and how we Natives have expertly taken over for the colonizer and started oppressing ourselves.  We Native people have many disparities to overcome and the greatest disparity isn’t poverty, addiction, or trauma.  It’s each other.

imageSo I’m a writer of literary fiction (which is starting to be called adult fiction) and I’ve been plugging away on my novel, Unsettled Between.  I’ve been in a back and forth revision mode with my agent for the past 14 months and with each round this novel is looking more and more badass.  I’m excited about the book and it’s a unique approach to literature; also, no Native writer has written a book like this.  All great motivators as I continue to revise.

If you’re a writer, or an artist in general, you know that on modern planet Earth you have to establish an online presence in order to stay relevant.  Social media has changed the way we interact with each other and there are many details to be aware of in the process of establishing your presence.  So the aesthetics of identity rises to the surface.  The way we look determines how people will interpret our values.  No, I’m not going into a Baudrillardian rant again.  But stay with me.  I’m getting to my point.

img_3944So I’m looking at my pics online and how each appear.  None of them are terrible, but I keep noticing something that happens because I wear my hair in a tight ponytail, which a lot of Native men do.  But it makes me look bald, lol.  If you find advice online about visual aesthetics in this modern world of social media, you’ll eventually find people addressing the dreaded ponytail, talking about profile pics and videos in context of the flat screen.  Because of the medium, it’ll appear as though you don’t have hair.

I took some pics of myself this last weekend.  I had time so I braided my hair.  Plus there was a lot of controversy around the super bowl and Natives.  Sometimes I’ll braid my hair as a protest. Most of the time I braid my hair because I’m going to traditional gourd dances.  But this last weekend it was one of those protest weekends.  For me, it was a clear signal in advocacy for my Native communities, Kiowa and Cherokee, that we will not be erased.  But I took some photos thinking I’d look at them later to possibly use on my social media.  You can find some of these photos on my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.  But everywhere I went on Sunday, people complimented my double braids  People stopped just to have conversations.  Maybe it was because I did this on super bowl Sunday (a holy day in America), or I’m easier to approach with my hair in braids, lol.  Either way, my hair was a clear catalyst to people’s reactions.

Now that I’m looking back at these photos I have to be aware of something that many of you might not know about.  Natives weaponizing Plains tribe appearance. I’ll explain.  You have to understand, I’m Kiowa, which is a Southern Plains tribe.  Not only do we wear double braids like the one I wear in the photo above, but we wrap our hair in red.  It’s a distinctive Kiowa look.  Braiding my hair in itself is a long process so I don’t wrap my hair.  Back when I was a young guy and a grass dancer, I wrapped my hair.  These days the single braided ponytail is usually my go-to-look.  I’m a single parent and spend most of my time doing my daughter’s hair.  Having time to do my own is nearly impossible (unless it’s a weekend and I’m getting ready for a dance or a protest).

“There are so many boys out there who have grown their hair, and have cut it, because they have been teased.” — Michael Linklater

But I get two polar opposite reactions from Natives.  Most Natives in Oklahoma will see my double braids and, by their excitement to speak with me, I can see they want to in effect “throw me a red power salute.”  But then there are power-seeking non-Plains Natives.  Or Natives who are insecure about their identity because they don’t “look” Native. Those Natives will make snide comments like I’m “preforming” my Kiowa identity, as in “trying too hard.”  If they’re academics, then they’ll use colonial language acquired in institutions of higher learning to belittle me for trying to be “authentic.”

This doesn’t stop me, lol.  I still do what I’ve been conditioned to do.  I have ancestors watching me.  Do you think I give a shit about insecure Natives?  If anything, I’m trying to teach them by example.  But what’s truly sad?  I see most Natives back down in the face of these attacks.  In fact, most Native men in Oklahoma don’t have long hair.  My family might be an exception, but my Kiowa side is a more traditional family.  Most of the Kiowa men in my family have long hair and we’re going to braid it at every chance.

“For most Indians, hair was only cut under certain circumstances… Many Dine, or Navajo, cut children’s hair on their first birthday and then do not cut it again… Among some tribes, hair was cut as part of tribal mourning customs…You can imagine how it must have felt for many native children to have their hair cut against their will upon entrance into U.S. government-run boarding schools.” — Anton Treuer

So whether or not the men of a specific tribe had long hair, or the long hair was worn in a single topknot at the back of the head (like Cherokees, and I actually had my hair shaved like this when I was in my early twenties), the U.S. has a long history of cutting off our hair as a method of extermination, whether we’re talking about the practice of scalping (which was introduced by French headhunters looking for our lives as bounty) or consequences of the boarding school era (where the U.S. tried to “kill the Indian to save the man” and cut not only our hair but our language as well).

Tom_Torlino_Navajo_before_and_after_circa_1882

So for Native men to wear our hair long, whether in a ponytail or braids, became an act of resistance.  This started with the American Indian Movement of the 1970s.  Many of its initial members were from Plains tribes so the appearance of long hair became synonymous with the fight for equality.  I want people to remember this history when they see a Native person wearing their hair long, especially Native men because we have been historically targeted for our hair.  Every year there is a school board somewhere in the U.S. sending down policy onto a young Native boy, telling him he has to cut his hair or else he can’t receive an education (a model that rolls over from the boarding school era).  So it’s not “performance” and if you have an issue with your identity for not “looking” Native then it’d serve tribal people better for you to seek counseling, rather than reinforce a colonial project of erasure.  We battle being erased by conservatives in their historical effort to subjugate Native peoples.  We don’t need sellouts doing the dirty work for them.

 

 

(Image above borrowed from commons,wikimedia.org)

3 Comments

  1. Hair is not – or should not be – a moral issue. yet almost every community makes it so, whether for women ,- who need to hide it, or cover it, or style it, or for school children where it needs to be a certain length, or the army – why? I sometimes work in a sikh school, where they take a sensible approach. Long or short, cover it in the presence of God – butthe covering can be full
    turban or a token scarf. there is choice, afforded to the youngest as well as the seniors. perhaps that is as it should be in all societies

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post very informative. I cannot understand why people have to enforce their way of life on others. There is much to be learned from each but the two sides have to be open minded. I am sure your writing will encourage hope within your tribal people.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for this informative essay. My heart goes out to all people who face discrimination by folks who look at the from the outside in with a lack of understanding or compassion or intelligence. Would that everyone could look at others from the inside out… see the heart… see the beauty of uniqueness. Thank you for speaking out and working to keep tribal people whole. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

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