The Long Hair of Us Indians by Cliff TaylorTweet
A few years ago this lightweight, pseudo-esoteric article on the ‘supernatural reasons natives keep their hair long’, or something like that, circulated around Facebook and like everyone else hoping to learn some sacred stuff about our elusive people, I read it, and then I made a funny face, shrugged my shoulders, and did not share it. Our hair is sacred to us but that article didn’t sound like it was written by someone who really knew what they were talking about; really, it sounded like someone using a bunch of internet New-Age stuff in their own head to just riff on the subject and go running with it. In a word, it was unfulfilling. I want to write a little something about native hair. Maybe, hopefully, it will be fulfilling to you, the reader; or at least maybe it will be fulfilling to me. I guess we’ll see.
My dad, my grandpa, and my uncles all had short hair; pure dark black Indian hair, cut short and plain, nothing special. I’ve had long hair since I was in middle school, when all of us had long hair because of the influence of the grunge-era, and then in high school when I just kept it like that and began to see myself partly as having long hair as a ‘symbol of my heritage’ (I lived in a small, mid-western town; there were no other wild Indians for me to get tips from and model myself after). As I write this now, I have long hair, kept in a ponytail, brown like my mom’s.
The summer after I graduated high school I went for a swim by myself in the Loup River, this gorgeous, relatively slow-moving, deep brown, shallow, holy, lovely river that our hometown grew out of, that my friends and I all held in the highest regard, that my current roommate always told us there was a god living in; we loved that river. I dove under, floated along, looked up into the blue sky and clouds; I was just being by myself, drifting in the true beginnings of the rest of my life, my official post-school life. Then, out of nowhere, something told me that I should shave my head, to symbolize this new beginning, this end of my youth and the start of my adulthood; maybe like a monk I read about in some book somewhere, or some hero-character out of a comic book beginning their new journey? I don’t know what told me to do that but I caught it with all of my feelings and mind so vividly, with such a strange definitive-ness, that I just, slowly, kind of got going, drove the ten miles straight home to our empty trailer, got the clippers, and without any second-thoughts, shaved off all of that long hair that I’d had for the last six or so years. It was weird. My skull felt so different afterwards. The next morning, when I went into work at the Chinese restaurant where I was a cashier, the owner’s wife looked at my bald self and said, “You look like an elf.” I laughed. I didn’t know what else to do.
One time at our Sundance our Sundance Chief was laughing and telling this story about this man stepping up at this gathering to share some old things that people supposedly didn’t talk about or know about anymore. Our Chief said he got all excited, like many of us and myself, always hoping to get one nugget more, one more bit of cultural knowledge to pack onto the big ball that’s gotten built up over a lifetime. But then he said the man just shared some basic stuff about hair and it was kind of a let down, a bummer; instead of pulling out a little holy animal that hadn’t been seen in ages from within his flannel shirt, he just pulled out a little medicine wheel and got chatty in low tones about some four direction stuff; or something, you know? Darn it. Darn it!
But what do I know about hair? I know mostly what my brother has told me. It’s our spirit growing out of the top of our head and coded into it are all of our memories, thoughts, and experiences. Because it is full of that most personal material, composed of that most private, essential stuff, it is sacred, it is not to be just treated thoughtlessly, like an old sock or the day’s mail. My brother told me that in the old days only your mother or your companion were allowed to touch your hair. People can do medicine on you if they acquire your hair. You don’t let just anyone fiddle with it, get all touchy with it, mess around with it. Is that too much, too much in this era of Trump and smart-phones? I don’t think so. One time in ceremony this man emerged with his two long braids tied lightly together on his chest in front of him. This was because his grandpa had a particular kind of medicine and this manner of having one’s hair was an expression designed by the spirits a long time ago to represent the presence of that kind of medicine in a person or their family/bloodline. The spirits still uphold these teachings and practices of our hair. We may not know all of them anymore but that does not mean we shouldn’t keep up the ones that we do know. This is basically how a lot of Indians I know think about our hair.
And I guess now I’m thinking about another story I heard from my brother regarding our hair and speaking to its sacredness, its power in our people’s lives and our culture.
He said that there were once these three brothers on Pine Ridge and they all three all had real long black beautiful hair and it was kind of just extra noticeable and eyed and loved and appreciated by people, the fineness and goodness of their hair, how they kept it, how they had it since they were little boys, how it was always cared for and hanging out and trailing behind them, like a pet, like a sacred blanket maybe. Then, when they were all teenage boys, their beloved mother died. The boys were all heartbroken. They loved their mom so, so much. As is tradition among our people, they were going to cut off all of their hair in mourning, in grief over their mother’s passing. But before they got around to doing that and before they laid their mom to rest, they had a ceremony and the spirits came in and so did their mother. In the ceremony the spirits talked to them about their mom and relayed her state and then they told the boys how much she loved them and they asked all three of them to not cut their hair but to honor her, because she loved that hair of theirs that she braided and cared for and had them have out of love and pride for their people, by keeping their hair long, by keeping it in that way that was almost like a trademark for all three of them. The boys listened. They did not mourn their mother with the cutting of their hair but by the keeping of it long, like she always liked it. I always imagine these boys standing by their mother’s grave with their long hair blowing in the wind, all that long black beautiful Indian hair flapping behind them like a flag of love for their people that they carried proudly because of their love for their mother. That’s a true story. That’s a story I always remember when I think about hair.
I graduated high school in 1999 and I have only cut my hair twice since that head-shaving I did after my swim in the Loup River. When I was twenty eight my grandpa, Cliff Taylor Senior, passed on and I cut off half of my hair with the others who were lined up to do the same and then that hair was wrapped with some sage in some red cloth and buried with him. Then, last year, I was at a ceremony and the spirits said that the ceremony was going to require a offering of ‘a lot of your hair.’ When the time came to offer my hair, I looked down and started praying and crying, directing the medicine person to cut off about two thirds of my pony-tail. I had no idea that was going to happen in that ceremony but when the spirits brought it up and it was time, I just said okay and let it go. The ceremony was a good one; it changed my life. Those are the only two times that I’ve cut my hair since I shaved it all off when I was a lost young eighteen year old looking out at the huge unknown future ahead of me, a portion of which I guess I have now lived, a greater portion of which I hope is still ahead of me.
One time I had a very powerful dream, a dream that I still don’t understand all these years later, that my Sundance Chief, the only true dream interpreter I’ve ever met, said was about an old Ponca ceremony coming back to our people someday, and in it I was just about ready to give up, to crumple over, my nose was bleeding, I just didn’t have anything left, I felt like I just couldn’t go on anymore, that I was about to go down for the count, and then I caught my hair hanging past my face out of the corner of my eye and my hair made me remember my people, made me remember why I did what I did, why I lived the way I lived and why I was doing what I was doing; seeing my hair, which was long in the dream and in real life because it was a symbol of my people, my indianness, I began to rally, to get strength, to get strong again, to get up and get back in there again; seeing my hair, bleeding out, I came back to life; and then I woke up.
Last year a friend related to me that he was at a ceremony and afterwards the medicine man told him to pass something along to my brother; he said, “Tell your brother to loosen up that braid of his a little. Haha.” More native hair talk; more native hair knowledge; another little nugget.
Last night my other roommate drunkenly asked me, “So Cliff, when are you going to cut your hair?” I didn’t say anything, thinking about it all for a second. Then he said, “It’s a native thing, huh? You’re not going to cut it, are you?” I shook my head, smiling at him. “Good,” he said, really looking at me. “You shouldn’t.”
Before I walked over to the coffee shop to write this my partner handed me a hair tie from over by her side of the bed. “Straight from the hair tie graveyard,” I said, because there were so many hair ties just lying over there. She laughed. I tied back my hair, made sure I had everything, and then said, “Thanks.”
Cliff Taylor is a writer, a poet, a speaker, and an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. He has written a non-fiction book about the little people and recently completed a memoir, Special Dogs, about coming-of-age in Nebraska. A year ago he moved to Seattle. He’s waiting to see what happens next. Contact Cliff @ firstname.lastname@example.org