Almost cut my hair
Hair and the fight for cultural independence & recognition
“Tsk, he should know his language!” my grandmother said to my aunt with a frustrated tone. I was a teenager and traveling on the reservation with them and two of my older cousins. We had just left the hogan of a medicine woman that we were visiting. For much of the time, I was asking my aunt and grandmother to translate the conversations they were having with each other and the medicine woman. This eventually became too much for my grandmother, which prompted her to make this earlier statement.
I understood her frustration, and I felt ashamed that I didn’t know how to speak Diné Bizaad – the Navajo language. “It’s how the Holy People can hear you,” my aunt said to me in the ceremony the night before. Hoping that the Diyin Dine?é would hear my prayers, I tried my best to mimic the words that were being spoken by the medicine woman. I then wondered, if the Holy People can hear me, would they even want to listen?
This might have been the moment when I realized how separate I felt from my native culture. Growing up in Utah, Texas and northern New Mexico, I only visited the reservation, but I never lived there. I told my mom, who also speaks Navajo, about what my grandmother said. She thought for a moment and said, “I’d rather you be able to speak English well and move easily in this world than not.” This statement was tinged with echoes from her past. My mother was put into a boarding school when she was not much older than a toddler. If she spoke her native language and not English, she’d get her mouth washed out with soap. One of the first things they did when she arrived was cut her hair. She said she cried because she looked like a boy and not like herself.
For the Diné, hair is an important aspect of the culture. It is even spoken about in the creation story. The hair of First Man and First Woman was made from the falling rain of storm clouds. Imbued in their strands was their wisdom, thoughts, attitudes and behaviors. By putting their hair in a bun, a tsiiyéél, they were able to gather these aspects of themselves and keep it close while they faced the challenges of their new worlds. By practicing this hair style, the Diné are able to connect with these first moments of creation.
My hair mostly followed the same formula as I grew up – short on the side, longer on top. My father would often tease me as it started to get long, usually referring to it as the “mop” on my head. After a cut, I felt rejuvenated and much more confident than before. It helped me blend back into a Western standard of beauty that I had become accustomed to – one that was defined by the media, my peers and even some of my family.
I had been thinking about growing my hair out for a couple of years, with my first attempt in my last year of high school. At the time, I believed my hair could be different than what it was – coarse, thick and a bit wavy – and that it would eventually match the hair of the white models in my reference photos. After many salon visits and hoping for a miracle hair product, I grew weary of the “mop” on my head and decided a #2 fade with a trim on top was my best and only option.
That was until November 2020 when I decided to fully commit to “decolonizing” my hair. However, I didn’t realize that decolonizing my hair would also include deconstructing my own beauty standards and what it meant for me to look so different than I did before. I struggled for months while it grew out. I started to believe that I looked much worse with long hair and wondered if this was worth the journey.
Shortly after grappling with these feelings, my sister sent me a video. In it, a man braids his hair while the following dialogue plays: “I want to say to all the young (natives) out there: Wear your hair long, for all the times that they cut our hair. Speak your language for all the times that that was forbidden. Live your life to your fullest potential. Make your mind strong, your body strong, your spirit strong. Because when you do that, you will show the survivors the reward of what they have been fighting for all these years.”
This audio reinforced my decision as to why I started on this path. I started so that I could remember the little girl in the boarding school who held onto her identity despite the attempts to cut it away. I started so that I could honor those who have fought and continue to fight for recognition. I started so that I could feel connected to First Man and First Woman. And most of all, I started so that I could define for myself how to move through this world – in beauty.
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again
– A Navajo Way Blessing Ceremony Prayer
– Doug Gonzalez