More Than Just Hair
The way it looks, how it is styled, what color it is – there are various ways in which our hair can affect the way we are perceived.
It is a common belief held among Native Americans that our hair is a spiritual extension of ourselves. The way in which we care for our hair correlates with how we treat and nurture our spiritual selves.
I can remember my mother telling my teenage self to stop cutting my hair all the time and to take better care of it. She told me that our hair held our spiritual power. The longer our hair grows, the more connected we are to the Earth.
Proverbs 16:31 of the New American Standard Version of the Bible reads, “A gray head is a crown of glory; It is found in the way of righteousness.” We as Native people believe that as we gain wisdom, the strands of our hair turn grey, correlating with wisdom, knowledge and experience. I find it interesting to see the cross sectionality of verses in the Bible with Native American beliefs.
Hair braiding also holds significance. When we braid our hair, the three strands are woven together, representing the strengthening of the mind, body and spirit.
Boys With Braids
The spiritual significance of hair to Native Americans is not limited to women. My 12 year-old-son Isaiah has long hair and wears braids, and so do his cousins.
There are often misconstrued ideas about Native boys with long hair. Sometimes it’s due to gender roles and stereotypes or what is considered the appropriate look based on gender. This often makes boys with longer hair a target for bullying and/or being perceived as girly or feminine.
The Boys with Braids movement is dedicated to sharing the teachings of why boys, men and elders wear braids and to foster a sense of pride in the community. It was inspired by Michael Linklater, a Canadian professional basketball star and role model to the Native American community. After witnessing his own two sons being bullied, Linklater launched the event that spurred the Boys With Braids movement.
Since then, online communities have popped up to provide a source for education and community for anyone interested in how and why men braid their hair.
Too often in the United States, appearances are misunderstood because they don’t adhere to how Americans are “supposed” to look like.
There are many times when I became angered because my child was mistaken for a girl or bullied because of his long hair. I was able to find forgiveness once I recognized that the bully’s hateful actions were a result of his lack of understanding. It evoked in me the moral and cultural obligation to educate and remind people of why his hair is long. By turning those moments of frustration into opportunities for cultural education and understanding, both sides of the conversation can develop greater respect for one another.
Parallelling Native American ideas about hair, the Sisterlocks movement is a natural hair care system that is, according to its website, “self-affirming” and intended to “enhance the self-image of African-American women.” These tiny hair locks allow women with textured hair to wear their hair in a variety of styles, without having to alter the natural texture of their hair.
The “locking” technique used to achieve sisterlocks requires hands-on training with a specific type of certification, different than the board certification required to be a hair stylist. Given that sisterlocks are applied to hair in its natural state with specific locking techniques, there is no need for certification involving the use of chemicals or dyes.
One of my sorority sisters, Nakiiya Williams, has been formally trained by Dr. Cornwell, an official loctician and founder of the trademarked company Sisterlocks. She said that Sisterlocks is so much more than just hair and fashion; it is more of an internal reflection of self than an external image for others. For example, each of Williams’ clients must attend a consultation prior to the locking appointment to discuss expectations, fears and self-image.
The decision to get sisterlocks is different for everyone. Some may want a change, some may want to do it to for spiritual reasons, others may simply like the way they look and have interest in the style.
She explained that it was the late ’80s style of Lisa Bonet from “The Cosby Show” that sparked her initial interest in them. The way in which she wore them and the free and awakened spirit her character portrayed added to the appeal. In later years, she came to the conclusion that she would become a member of the sisterlock movement, both as a loctician and a committed wearer of the style.
As the sisterlocks website states, “Sisterlocks is not about a hairstyle, it’s about a lifestyle.”
Different Culture, Different Meaning
After asking several people about why they wear their hair the way they do, I was surprised by the variety of responses. While some dye, cut or style their hair “just because,” others partake in the management of their hair with planned intent and spiritual meaning through dreadlocking and shaving the hair.
My son’s beautiful 3-foot-long hair adorns his head. I know that in order to keep his spiritual strength and health in tact, it is my obligation to care for it until he is able to.
Care for your hair as you would your spirit, for this particular extension of yourself is visible for all to see. Let it be meaningful and intentional. Through this process, you will begin to better understand your hair, your spirit, and yourself.