Graduation season. Lately my newsfeed has been a steady stream of smiling Native graduates, clad in beaded mortarboards, eagle feathers, and the beautiful adornments of their cultures. But with the season has also come a litany of stories involving students fighting their schools and administrators for the right to wear the sacred objects associated with a major life event.
Why are these schools denying Native Americans cultural expression? And those schools with say, ‘[R-word] as a mascot…really? A faux headdress is acceptable but not a rightfully earned eagle feather?
Last week, I received a call from a family whose school had gone even further – the administrators were mandating that a Diné child cut his hair in compliance with the dress code, lest he be unable to attend next fall.
Despite several meetings and email exchanges, the school remained resolute that long hair is not a religious belief worthy of recognition. And even if it was, they asserted that the law does not protect the child’s belief.
I could not believe what I was hearing. Were these administrators completely unaware of the significance of long hair to Native Americans? Had they heard of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which sets forth a clear federal policy “to protect and preserve … [the] inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian”? Did they just not care once informed?
Throughout Indian country, there are many differing hairstyles and associated beliefs. Personally, I learned my hair is an outward projection of my connection to the Red Road, a physical symbol representing my spiritual commitment to living mino bimaadiziwin and learning the teachings of the Midewiwin. Excepting slight trims, my hair will only be cut if a traumatic event occurs, such as the passing of a relative.
For the Diné family, their son’s hair would be tightly wrapped into a figure-eight bun called a tsiiyéél. School administrators claimed the hairstyle would be a “distraction” for the other students and outside visitors. One wonders if a yarmulke worn by a Jewish child would be ruled a distraction.
But perhaps it is simply just another instance of mainstream culture having little to no clue about Native American values, and dismissing those values as foreign once informed. Fortunately, the Supreme Court does not take that approach.
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