A tear escapes the corner of her eye as she releases her hair to cascade against her back. She closes her eyes, tilts her head and runs her hand slowly through her prayers. It is within this moment that she feels the warmth and love of her ancestors; she is home.
Let me tell you a story.
I am sitting on my bum, legs crossed, waiting and dreading for my hair to be braided. I can hear her in the kitchen. She walks into the living room, smiles, wipes the flour from her hands onto her apron and says, hello my girl. Hi kokum, I respond. My eyes are already squeezed shut, fingers gripping the carpet or my pants because I know what is about to come. I was such a dramatic little girl.
Both my mother and my kokum would braid my hair all the time: for school, for church, when I danced, for ceremonies. I never had messy hair. My mother took great pride in the appearance of her children. It was important to her that we were always properly dressed, clean and that we took care of our hair. I think it was a way of ensuring that people knew that she took care of us. And she did. My mother is one of the hardest working people I know.
With these braids came the teachings of discipline, self-esteem, self-respect, a sense of belonging, and a healthy sense of pride. I would listen to my mother and resent everything she was teaching me because of the teasing and laughter that accompanied these braids once she left my side. The yanking of my braids, the “she looks like a little Indian” comments, the snickers and pointing. It made me angry and I began to fight my mother about my hair. It was a constant battle.
I guess you could say I grew up as a tom-boy, I hated dresses, I hated my long hair, I didn’t like to wash or brush my hair and I always stuffed it underneath my ball cap. What I was actually trying to do was hide who I was. At home, it was normal to have daily conversations about who we were as Anishinaabe people, where we came from and where we were going. I was raised with a strong cultural identity but for a long time I really struggled with it outside the walls of our home and our lodge. I was constantly trying to prove to myself and others that I was worthy and I didn’t have the communication skills to fight harmful stereotypes, so instead I acted out and sometimes made poor decisions. If people are going to think these things of me anyways, might as well just do it then hey? That was my thought process.
I vividly remember a really hard time in my life which followed by me finally cutting all of my hair off. I was 14 years old. Subconsciously, I think I thought that by cutting my hair I was becoming a completely new person and that all those negative experiences and thoughts would just disappear. Let me tell you, they didn’t. I remember the tears that flowed down my mothers cheeks when I came home with hair cut to my chin. She was so incredibly sad and I couldn’t understand what the big deal was.
As I progressed through my teens it was as though I was walking in two different worlds. It was exhausting. I didn’t understand my own feelings and I certainly didn’t want to acknowledge them. I was a beautiful, young Native woman but all I felt was dirty, judged and misunderstood. If I fell out of line I was just like the “rest of them” but if I fell in line then I was “better than the rest of them”, I was “beating the stereotypes” and I could be someone to look up. I hated myself, for a really, really long time and I was so good at hiding it.
I am 31 years old now and there are days that I yearn for the touch of my kokum’s hands while she brushes and braids my long hair. For me, how I relate to my hair is a constant reminder of my connection to my culture and a distinct worldview grounded in the sacredness of my relationships. My mother and kokum taught me that braiding a child’s hair is the beginning of establishing an intimate and nurturing relationship. It’s a beautiful way to bond and a powerful way to reinforce the sacredness of relationships. There is a teaching about the symbolism of the braid, itself, that reaffirms this practice. It is said that single strands of hair are weak when tugged on, however, when you pull all of the hair together in a braid the hair is strong. This reinforces the value of the family, along with our connection to all of creation.
We are taught as children that we don’t cut our hair unless we have experienced a significant loss, like the death of a close family member, traumatic event or significant life change. We are taught that our hair is a physical extension of all our thoughts, prayers, dreams, aspirations, experiences and history. When we cut our hair, it represents the end of something that once was and a new beginning. When we do have to cut our hair, it is never to be thrown away, but rather, burned in a ceremonial way. When our hair is burned, all of our thoughts, prayers, dreams, aspirations, experiences, and history rise to the Creator to be properly taken care of.
With my hair embodying so much of who I am it’s important for me to set boundaries. I will never allow someone to touch my hair without my permission. This is a constant reminder for the boundaries that need to be set in all aspects of my life. It’s a reminder for me to hold my head high and be a proud Anishinaabekwe. Finally, it’s a reminder to me that I am so loved, not just by the people that remain in my life in the physical world but those who have passed on that have so much love and admiration for the woman I am today.
And when she is home, she knows that she is capable of anything.
Until next time. All my love.