As Native people, we are deeply committed to and rooted in our respective cultures and heritages. Many beliefs, practices, and teachings are central to who we are, what we do, even how we navigate the world. Such custom is our hair, which signifies pure beauty, power, and resiliency.
Our hair is an integral part of our identity. It was a method of recognition where people in the community knew who you were according to how your hair looked. It was also a form of self-expression—our ancestors groomed their hair and always styled it, something we do today. We styled our hair for ceremonies, celebrations, and everyday life. For example, people of Plains tribes often intricately braided their hair adorned with feathers, plumes and animal skins; two-braided styles as well as pompadours were common. We washed our hair with traditional plants sourced from the land, such as yucca root, which has skin and hair benefits, plus anti-inflammatory properties.
Traditionally, we let our hair grow out. Our hair holds knowledge and wisdom, and it's believed that the longer your hair is, the more one has. We believe our hair is the physical extension of our ní–spirit—which we consider sacred. With our hair, we’re able to have extrasensory perception and heightened connectivity to Mother Earth; pulling energy from the world around us. In fact, this is why we don't allow just anyone to touch our hair. It was a common lesson taught to us growing up that no one is allowed to touch or feel our hair other than a trusted person; because someone with ill feelings can taint our hair.
I had long hair that I loved to curl. I hardly ever got my hair cut and only trust my friends with my hair, who are also Native women hairstylists.
Personally, I had long, beautiful dark mocha brown hair that went way past my waist. For me, my hair was not only my star feature; it was my strength. I held my long hair in my hands whenever I felt scared or anxious. I enjoyed fixing my hair and showing it off; I felt a sense of pride and beauty when those around me took notice of my hair. I took great care of my long hair. Our grieving process is very different. When we lose someone we highly respect, a parent, guardian, mentor, family member, etc., we not only weep for them, but we also cut our hair. Cutting our hair is part of the mourning process, which is like a small ceremony we have with ourselves—we are to burn our hair with sage or sweetgrass, releasing our prayers, thoughts, and dreams to the Creator.
I embrace and love my short hair. I look forward to the experience of growing my hair long again.
Two years ago, I cut my hair for my unci–grandmother, my second mom. She helped raise me and taught me our Lakota culture and language; I wouldn't be who I am today if it weren't for her. I have a lot of respect and gratitude for my unci; therefore, I cut my hair short; it touched my cheeks. The process was painful; not only did my heart hurt for my grandmother, but my long hair lay on the bathroom counter. My family members followed suit; my mother, father, brother, and aunties cut their hair to mourn our grandmother. There are many times when I miss my long hair, but I remember–my hair grows back little by little, but my grandmother will never come back to this side. Many people also cut their hair when they're moving past a significant event or experience happening to them. Overall, this lesson signifies our lives' hurting and renewal stages; we hurt and grieve, eventually healing and growing.
This knowledge is shared amongst many of us from different parts of Turtle Island (a Native moniker for North America). We all understand not to touch one another's hair without permission. Even seeing a friend's short haircut after losing a loved one, I express my condolences and say a prayer, as I know they are mourning. What a sight to see others fix each other's hair for the powwow or a fashion show, bonding and engaging in conversation, with roars of laughter here and there. It's a beautiful experience to hear them share what their hair means to them or their own stories of learning about their locks; to see all of the different hair textures and colors we all have as Indigenous people. It's powerful to see us reclaim our hair by growing it long, as many of our ancestors were forced to cut their hair by the government in an attempt to strip us of our culture and identity during the cultural assimilation era of the late 19th century.
I'm proud of the continued pride my short hair provides me. I'm also blessed to have learned teachings about our hair from my mother, grandmothers, and aunties. The knowledge regarding our hair speaks to our people's beauty, power, and resiliency through time, wisdom that'll continue to live through us.
Kelly Holmes, Mnicoujou Lakota from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, is an entrepreneur and content creator. She’s the founder and President of Native Max New Media, an award-winning global multimedia brand and the editor-in-chief of Native Max Magazine, a glossy publication which features the fashion, culture, and lifestyle of Indigenous people.
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Header Photo: Native Max Magazine