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Indian Hair

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One man's story of self-discovery through his locks.

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The story of my Indian hair started when I was like 10 or 11 I found myself with 10 dollars. I wasn’t sure where I would spend the money, likely if I had any money at all the likely destination would be the arcade. This time it would be different, I had been exposed to more and more hip hop music and decided I needed a rapper haircut… maybe a fade like Kid ‘n Play.

I ended up at one of those Magic Cuts located in the back of a Sears, I walked in and asked for a fade. The hairdresser took one look at me, she took a second and said I could get one but I would have to pay up front. I gave her all the money I had, I am pretty sure I had more than enough for the haircut, maybe she also calculated a moderate tip. I can’t remember everything about our interaction but remember feeling even at that time she was really not that nice to me. She started with the haircut with some deep runs of the electric shaver across my head and all of a sudden stopped…

By Meky Ottawa

She put down the shavers and went to talk to her co-worker she returned and angrily told me I had lice. She was not calm or understanding about it, I never felt so dirty in my life. She told me to leave and I left. I didn’t ask for my money back, I didn’t question if I had lice; I just left.

I ran out of the store and started my long run home, my head partially shaved, with hair falling onto my face as I ran. When I made it home I had my aunt over, she helped finish shaving my head and after conferred with my mom it became evident that I also didn’t have lice, maybe some dandruff but definitely no lice.

It was one of the first times I remember being truly ashamed of who I was… ashamed of my Indian hair…

Until this point my shame could probably be written up to our poverty. Then something happened, after finishing my hair cut my aunt stood behind me licked her fingers and cuffed my head hard all while saying “that is the way a man wears his head”. It wasn’t the last time someone licked their head and proceeded to cuff my head reminding me that is the way a man wears his hair.

Apparently, this was a custom started by my Grandfather, Thomas, he has died before I was born so I was never able to meet him. I was gifted his name as my middle name, but I had very little connection to him until that point.

From then on almost anytime I was getting my hair cut I would tell the story I was told. That story includes my Grandfather riding around our reserve picking up all the young native boys and driving them to the next city over. There he would buy them lunch and ice cream, the final stop always was him bringing the young boys back to the barber who would give them a neat crew cut. On the way out of the barber my Grandfather would meet the boys, lick his fingers and cuff them in the back of the head and say, “That is the way a man wear his hair”.

I told this story with the pride of a Grandson who had never met his Grandfather, but we finally found that one connection. I have never had long traditional hair, I never wore a braid, and the fact is I never wanted to be any more Indian than the colour of my skin already presumed. I did shave my head sometimes into a crew cut, sometimes an under cut, sometimes a bowl cut and for a lot of my life a Mohawk. Again it wasn’t a traditional Mohawk, but a punk rock Mohawk. I shaved my head and I shared this story.

Throughout the year, I never had this story challenged, it was always met with some kind of innocence and happiness. That is until I told it to some friends whose politics I trusted and respected proceeded to react as if I was telling them a horror story. It didn’t sink in and it had to be explained to me why it might have been problematic that my Grandfather would take young indigenous boys and shave their hair without any kind of consent and reinforce the idea a man doesn’t have long hair… a man doesn’t have Indian Hair.

It has taken me years to be where I am today as a proud indigenous man. I stopped telling that story, I understand now why it is problematic, I was angry at my Mishomis (Grandfather). Why would he rob those boys of their Indian hair? Why was I such a fool for sharing this story, for perpetuating the genocide our people have suffered for hundreds of years?

I never asked myself what experiences my Mishomis had, why he fell so far away from our traditions. The fact is the self-hating-Indian isn’t new either, for hundreds years our people have been thought to hate ourselves and it has keep our people down. I never met my Mishomis and I was never able to ask him about it. I don’t mean to assume he was a self-hating-Indian, I still think it might have been problematic for him to force his views of masculinity and indigenousness on others, but maybe somewhere in his journey he found a way to be a proud indigenous Man.

My journey was also markedly different from that of my Mishomis.’ I started to feel pride in my history and in my stories. I found pride in his journey and even though we never met I am proud of carrying his name. I am also proud to tell my story and think of him every time an electric razor touches my scalp.

So here's my closing message to all the young Indigenous boys out there: grow your hair or don’t. Just don’t let any one hairstyle or any one person define what it means for you to be Indigenous or a man. Find your own way just know that you come from a rich history and you express it in any way that works for you. Own those stories of your elders and relations, find your truth in them take those stories and find your strength in them.

Peace,

Wayne

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