First Braids- My Anishinaabe Son.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed in “Native American Mommy”, “Native American Hair”, “Ojibwe/Ojibwa/Ojibway/Chippewa/Anishinaabe Hair/Culture/Mom/Message Board.” I just want to find someone out there who can help walk me through some of these issues.

I don’t find a whole lot.

I mean, I can always ask J questions about “Why is it that we keep his hair long?” “What significance does that have?” and he’s more than willing to hand me books, videos, and explain things to me.

But that doesn’t really help that much when someone in real life goes “Why do you keep his hair long?” and I’m left fumbling for an answer that correctly and casually explains my husband’s historical and personal background. Or how embarrassing it is to answer the question “Well how much Native American is he, like, full blooded?” Let’s just say that’s a very long winded answer, the short answer being anywhere from 1/2 to 1/4 to 1/8. And it’s the worst when HIS family asks about it- and I have to be the one to answer. There is just all sorts of issues going on in this and I always think it will be less awkward than it ends up being.

What doesn’t help, is how significant HAIR is in any culture, and how awkward it is to straddle different cultures and religious significances. I never thought of the fact that my christian friends and christian family might take my son’s long hair as an affront to that religion. And when I say religion, I mean religion- as in having nothing whatsoever to do with the relationship between God and Man. I didn’t realize it until last night.

J asked me to watch the PBS series “We Shall Remain” with him since it’s on Netflix. My ignorance on Native American history is pretty clear, so he tries to give me as many resources as possible to start building in the hole leftover after Pocahontas. The first episode covers the beginning of the Native American- Pilgrim relationship. Using the verse in I Corinthians that describes it being dishonorable for a man to wear long hair, the Pilgrims demand that a converted, Christian Indian must put aside the “old life”, cut their hair, wear English clothes, conform to that Anglo-American Christian way of life.

I guess we should just chalk that up to another point for “why religion sucks” and try to move on from where I could go with all that.

The modern day problem I’m coming across is that white Christians still carry this religious practice with them. That somehow my son cannot have traditional long hair, and be raised as both Anishinaabe and Christian. That I’m dishonoring my own heritage by allowing the dying culture, language and people of my husband to be dominate in my son’s upbringing. That somehow my husband is dishonoring the other part of him that is not Native American. That somehow my husband is putting that culture above his relationship with Christ.

In our home, in our life- it’s easy. We don’t cut Baby M’s hair. We don’t cut it because, traditionally, in Ojibwe culture, men wore long hair (usually braided in two braids). We don’t cut it because my husband was raised with the knowledge that this was part of him- this was something to know and respect. We pray over our son, we tell him about what Christ did for him on the cross, we pray that he someday will enter into a relationship with Christ. We also tell him stories about our past, our people’s past. There is no conflict- no issue.

Then we step out into the world and our simple, happy family becomes a confusing mess of land mines and I just wish I knew how to navigate it.

“So when are you going to cut his hair?”
“Because my husband is Ojibwa and it’s part of his tradition to keep his hair long.”
“But your husband’s hair isn’t long.”
“Yes, well my husband’s hair was long through much of his childhood and young adult years. At his job now he isn’t allowed to keep his hair long. (He’s a police officer).”
“But you’re not Indian?”
“It’s just what we’ve decided to do.”
“But his family doesn’t keep their hair long.”
What I want to say: “That’s because his family is still trying to tell people they are white.” (HUGE issues there)
What I really say: “It’s just a decision my husband made personally after being taught his background.”
“Are you going to let him cut it?”
“When he’s old enough to understand and make the decision for himself, we have no problems with him cutting his hair.”
“Why do they keep long hair in the first place, what does that mean?”
“It has to do with their place and position within the tribe. It’s an indication of honor and wisdom. You weren’t supposed to cut it ever.”
“So you’re never going to let him cut it?”
“No, if he wants to cut it later, he can.”
Hmm. Okay then.”

and finally, embarrassingly, we can move on.

So this morning, I braided my son’s hair for the first time and I took him to the grocery store.

“His hair isn’t long enough to be braided yet,” J said, looking at the tiny twin braids sticking straight out of the back of his head.

“I know…I just need the practice.”

I needed the practice seeing my son with braids before I had to face people I knew. I needed the practice answering people’s questions. I needed the practice straddling a different culture.

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  • I must be an oddity. I grew up with a father who taught English as a second language to adult students from countries around the world. We had these students in our house, teaching us to cook their food, teaching us to count to ten in their native languages, telling us about their cultures, and I grew up feeling like being a white American meant I had no culture. I saw so many beautiful things, and felt a lack. So I have no problems with the idea. But then again, I was also raised to stay out of other people’s business. What right is it of someone in the grocery store to question your parenting decisions?

  • thanks for sharing this. I tried to grow my sons hair long because of our heritage. Lost out to the school in TN. Both my sons hair was cut. When my grandsons where born my daughter said the twins would grow it long. She and the dad starting sharing custody this past summer. He has cut their hair three times. when she explains it is religious, he laughs. today we picked them up and the hair cut is awfull It is uneven and all gaped up. They have head lice too. But the three year olds keep repeating, it was in their eyes.

    it brakes my heart. The second generation of boys I could not help to keep the long hair tradition with.

    granny gypsy

  • Aaniin,

    I know it has been many years from this post but something to keep in mind. The culture is alive and for people to take that dying culture stance… they should view their own historical assimilation especially those of northern europe. And as far as well the Anishinaabek values they offer clarity and a positive open minded upbringing. I wish I had the same in the simplest regards of ethics. I recommend “The Mishomis book the voice of the ojibway” by Edward Benton-banai good for a young reader as well. Do not let ignorance stand in the way of your child knowing fully who they come from. Did jesus have a crewcut?