The first time I heard my ina find a blond hair on her laundry, I thought a snake had come into our house. “Hun-hun-hi!” she cried as she sorted out the laundry. I asked her what happened and all she could do was stammer as she pulled the long, blond strand from her clothes.
When she collected herself after hanging out the laundry, she told me, “Someone put their medicine on me. I don’t know if they meant it or not, but whenever you find other people’s hair on your clothes, you have to throw it away as fast as you can before their medicine gets on you.”
In Lakota culture, hair is an integral part of our identity. It takes on a significance because when our grandparents and ancestors were taken to boarding schools, their hair was unceremoniously cut and continued to be cut. Radical activists generally give the explanation that hair is generally a cultural significance; some go as far as to encourage scientific beliefs about the physical relationship of Indigenous people and our hair. But for my mother’s family, hair has always been about spiritual medicine, one’s own power and the invitation of the power of the spirits to intercede into our world, depending on how one’s own medicine was used in this world.
It’s why we cut most of it at the death of a loved one, to both mark that someone important has made their journey into the next world and to mark that our medicine is impacted by the loss. My kaka would often get after his daughters and son if they left brushes and combs on the table, saying in Lakota, “Don’t do that, we eat here, don’t share that with everyone.” He knew that hair, even in its fallen form, was still something that had power over people.
My ate, a barroom brawler from the dirty old school, he encouraged my brother and I to keep our hair short, “So they don’t have anything to grab you by.” He grew up scrapping and fighting his whole life, surrounded by poor, resentful, white ranch hands in the small Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana towns near where he was a migrant farm and ranch laborer. Long hair was a liability, not as any cultural signifier, but a liability to his personal safety for when, not if, he got into trouble being Indigenous while working.
In these modern times, Indigenous folks play with our hair in different ways. A more innovative Jingle Dress dancer with a new style of dancing and a new hairstyle (AJ Douglas Bear) recently left the powwow circle because they were bullied because they broke from tradition in a new way.
Wanting to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors is a noble goal, always. For those of us of the seventh generation, our parents, grandparents, great grandparents and ancestors lived through unimaginable horrors at the hands of colonizers. Where we fail at honoring them is by adopting the Us vs. Them mindset of the colonizers. Tribalism is instinctual for many of us, whoever doesn’t belong might be a threat to our safety. But we never would have survived without new ideas and new traditions; when the Lakota were at our worst in the late 19th century, it took a Paiute holy person (Wovoka) to give us the Ghost Dance, which in turn, rallied our spirit of resistance.
Culture is change and it is animate, it moves and it looks different from age to age. In my 40 years, much of what I grew up with has changed. Whether it’s the way people sing, the way they speak Lakota, or the way they pray, so much has changed from when I was a boy. Rather than lamenting and decreeing it bad, I learned to embrace change. I remembered that our medicine comes from within, it’s evidence in the outside world is myriad, and its genius and glory is that it adapts from age to age to help us survive.
For that, I am grateful.