My late mother’s hair was as black as night and it carried a resiliency and a strength that she passed down to us. The hair teachings of our Anishinaabe culture were buried beneath her trauma and that of generations before her but they were still there, woven right into her very existence. I remember one time, when my sister and I were small, a man stared at her and her long black hair that rippled down her back against her warm, brown skin. My mother was, no doubt, absolutely beautiful. She glared back and gave him the middle finger—as a means to say, “this body and this hair is not yours to sexualize.” And as we grew up, she continued to show us methods to reject the colonial gaze, always reminding us, as young Indigenous women, that our bodies, and our hair, was no one’s to touch or sexualize.
Hair is sacred. The teachings have been passed down by our nokamis to our mothers, our mothers to our daughters and our fathers to our sons. While hair teachings differ, depending on the family, community and nation, there is an overarching theme. Our hair connects us to our identity, our kinship systems and our life force. Ultimately, how we take care of our hair is a reflection of how we take care of ourselves and our children.
With my mother, the teachings would sometimes come out in the mornings when we were running late. On those days, it was almost as though time slowed down. We would sit in a chair in front of her, or on the floor as she sat on the couch. She’d brush our hair thoroughly, making sure it was smooth and silky; some days she’d braid one long braid. As she combed, she would whisper, “you have such beautiful hair, my girl.” Other times, her trauma would show through, and she’d snap at us: “Quit moving. We are already late!” However, her fingers quickly weaving through my hair as she’d do the last twists and ties were always calm. And when the brushing or braiding was complete, she would sigh and apologize, “I’m sorry my girl. Your hair looks beautiful.”
Colonialism tried to steal the energy that exists within our hair. Forcibly cutting Indigenous children’s hair in residential schools was yet another attempt to undermine and dehumanize us. Those kids then went home with the idea they had to be ashamed of their traditions and cultural teachings and passed on that shame to their own children. Indigenous children are still being disconnected from the traditions of Indigenous kinship systems, through the child welfare system as well as the long-term impacts and continued attempts of colonialism. There is, however, a resurgence taking place.
I can see it in my nephews, who proudly wear their braids, standing up for themselves in the face of continued colonialism. “My hair is sacred and important,” they’ll say to bullies on the playground. I can see it with the young Indigenous girls who are reiterating the teachings back to their mothers, in the sacred early morning hours. “We take care of our hair for a reason,” some will say. “Our braids show them they never won.” And I can see it in the affirmations from aunties and the uncles to the nephews daily. “Wow, real deadlee braid you have,” and “ever nice hair!” The natural law of our hair, that it will grow no matter how many times it is cut, goes hand in hand with the truth that even though colonialism and genocidal practices attempted to cut our ties to our culture, languages, and traditions, they were maintained, and continue to grow within our kinship systems.
One of the hair teachings that my late mother practised when my uncle passed was that we only cut our hair during times of grief. After his funeral we cut each other’s braids, honouring the teaching as best as we could. When I cut her hair, the thick black braid fell into my hand, and my mom sobbed. As she cut mine, a sharp pain of grief hit me in the stomach. And then, it lifted. She handed me my hair and whispered to me “let’s go take care of this.”
When my late mom died unexpectedly from a ruptured brain aneurysm, I was four months pregnant. The teachings also state that we are to cut our hair in times of grief, but not when we are carrying life. I left my hair long, doing my best to find a balance between the grief and the new life I was carrying. I did recently cut my hair, now that I am no longer pregnant. And with the cutting of the hair, was a letting go of the pain that was being held in my hair. It was almost as if with the cutting of my hair, I was able to let go of the grief I no longer needed to carry for my mom.
“I feel lighter” we often hear our aunties and loved ones say after a haircut. The reality is, our hair carries our grief, our traumas and our pain. It also carries love, pride, strength, and the intergenerational bond. When we let go of our hair, we let go of the energy of the years of grief, trauma, and pain we were carrying along with it.
When my late mother was alive, we would braid each other’s hair, and she would joke to me about the men on the powwow trail that she would allow to touch her hair, to braid it.
“What about that one?”
“Quit it, mom!” I would laugh back, as I tightly wove her hair, admiring it as I went along.
There is a joke among our people that the moment you let someone you are interested in braid your hair is when you commit to them in ways that are as meaningful as a relationship. We treat our hair as we would anything that is sacred.
I’m now passing my mother’s teachings to my daughter. Most mornings, before we start the day, I ask her questions to ensure that she understands, and remembers, the teachings associated with her hair. And I provide the space for her to practice her autonomy and decide how many braids she wants that day. Some days, she doesn’t want a braid, and that’s fine. As long as her hair is taken care of, and she continues to carry the knowledge and understanding of just how sacred her hair is. And with her knowing that, she will carry that with her as she grows and develops. There is an energy that exists within our hair, a spirit. And this in itself, is what we have to protect, nurture, and instill within our children, even if colonialism continues to try to tell them differently.
The year before my mother died, we danced at every possible powwow that we could, enjoying the summer evenings. She would brush my hair before a pow-wow, intertwining the hair into tight, secure braids, and she would still whisper quietly to me “you have such beautiful hair, my girl.”
Andrea Landry teaches at the First Nations University of Canada. She’s a mother, a certified life-skills coach and a freelance writer for Today’s Parent. She also has a personal blog entitled “Indigenous Motherhood.”