In this short, powerful video from CBC unreserved , Cecil Sveinson shares a teaching about the significance of hair in his culture. He discusses what his hair means to him and how he honors it. Watching the video reminded me about the beliefs and sacredness of hair to indigenous people. I learned these invaluable teachings from my students and their families.
Permission to share
I have offered protocol and received permission to share the personal story of one of my past students. The story exemplifies the significance of hair in indigenous culture. Receiving permission to share someone else’s story is important. Indigenous culture teaches that asking for or benefiting from the knowledge of someone else requires reciprocal action. Reciprocity in indigenous culture is the practice of offering protocol and in most cases; this involves the gifting of tobacco.
Tobacco is a sacred plant to the indigenous. If the tobacco offering is accepted, then a spiritual ‘contract’ or agreement has been formed. Acknowledging the stories of others and sharing them in respectful ways is important. To put it simply, “Always treat others the way you’d want to be treated”. Sound familiar?
Ask an Elder, or read an Indigenous Protocol policy to learn more about how to offer protocol.
Leroy always kept his long, dark, hair in a really long, low, ponytail at the nape of his neck. He would fix his hair and then tuck it into the back of his hoodie, and almost always wore a toque. Even in the summer, he would wear a toque. One year he went on a school trip to work on a nature reserve in Costa Rica. When he returned, he was sporting a new toque that he bought himself on the trip. Classmates lovingly teased him; saying, only he would be able to find a new toque while shopping in the tropics.
At times, people would ask Leroy why he always kept his hair hidden away and tucked into the back of his hoodie. He would reply, “because I don’t want people touching my hair! People always want to touch my hair.” At other times he would express that he only allows his mother to cut his hair. They lived several hours apart from each other at the time. If he wanted a trim, he had to wait for an extended school break, or a time when he could travel to Calgary to see her. Additionally, the cut hair is handled in ceremony, by the mother.
An Aunt or Little Mother
Mentorship activities were embedded into my high school programming. I taught in a K – 12 school, therefore collaborating with elementary teachers to create mentorship opportunities for students was easy. We would partner students with a reading buddy or to create a craft. Taking students outside to learn on the land, cook, and / share stories was also something we did.
To celebrate a year of successful collaboration we shared a field trip. My students mentored and helped their younger counterparts in different ways throughout the trip. Leroy’s cousin happened to be in the kindergarten class we partnered with for the year. His Aunt, Betty-Ann came on the trip as an adult supervisor.
Wahkotowin, teaches that we are all related. This interconnection creates the foundation of the indigenous worldview. Indigenous culture, clearly defines kinship roles and responsibilities. Aunts are ‘little mothers‘, or hold the same responsibility of a mother.
On the field trip, Leroy wanted his hair fixed. We were in the Sea Life Cavern at West Edmonton Mall, exploring, learning, and listening to the guide teach about the different sea life that live there. Leroy sat on the rocks provided in the cavern, while his Aunt carefully and affectionately fixed his hair. The affection and respect between the two was palpable and, like so many other times throughout my teaching experience, my students’ modeled the importance of healthy relationships, and living their values.
Modelling the way
The moment between Leroy and his aunt struck a chord with me. This tender moment gave me the gift of a lived experience. One that most may only experience through reading a book or watching a video. Their interaction helped me to really understand, the importance of the connection between indigenous people and their hair. Conversely, I realized how horrible it must have been for so many children to have had their hair unceremoniously and cruelly hacked off upon their entrance to residential school. Many of them, like Leroy, had most likely never had their hair touched by someone other than their mother before. The cutting not only changed the way they looked, but represented a cutting off of connection to family, strength, spirit, identity and of hope.
The Hair Cut
When Leroy cut his hair short, it was in alignment with his cultural tradition, to honor the lives of his older sisters, both of whom passed away far to young. The blog post Sisters in Spirit, shares more about the story of one of Leroy’s sisters, and the healing actions her family is taking including raising awareness about Missing Murdered Indigenous Women and Men.
I would like to extend sincere gratitude to Leroy English and Betty-Ann Moses, from Saddle Lake Cree Nation for allowing me to share their story.
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