Skip to main content

Healthwise: 'I am not my hair'

Indian hair - speaking generally - is the quintessential type that is smooth with just-the-right-amount-of body that populates commercials for high-priced shampoos and dyes.

The thing is that we, with few exceptions, are genetically blessed to have this hair grow naturally, using nothing more than whatever was on sale at Walgreens. Seriously, you can spot an Indian at 50 paces by his or her hair, which is generally black, coarse and conspicuously long.

I respect those tribal peoples for whom their hair is sacred. For me, my hair was my sense of beauty, or in the description from one acquaintance, it was a cascading black waterfall.

So in treatment for cancer in 2005 I gave up a lot more than my right breast. I lost my hair. It came back a cross between Little Orphan Annie and Einstein. The curling hair is a side effect from chemotherapy, and it could last forever. Going from no bad hair days - ever - to two out of every three has really taken a bite out of my pride.

What's odd is that no sooner do I hate my hair on a given day than someone of a different race, generally white, comes up to me and says, ''You're so lucky to have naturally curly hair.'' They seem to really mean it. During one peculiar stage of regrowth when a spontaneous pompadour - the 1950s men's style where the hair is brushed forward and curled over the face - emerged, the latte-drinking, laptop-lugging hipsters of Portland eyed me with admiration.

I always wanted to tell them, it's an exceedingly expensive 'do. (Probably $60,000, the cost of my chemotherapy.)

The opposite happens in Indian circles, where people who don't know me or don't recognize me without my old hair take my curly hair as an indication that I'm not Indian. More than once since my hair started growing back just over a year ago, I've been given the Indians 101 lecture or - worse - been turned away as unrecognized by old acquaintances. It was even more hurtful during the long months in 2005 when I had no hair.

As I worried over whether my hair would return, white nurses in my oncologist's office assured me that it always grows back better. Once in a while, they'd laughing say, and maybe it will be curly. I never laughed and they never asked why.

As a mixed-race Yakama, my course, straight hair was one of more obvious Indian traits. To me, losing my hair - even more than losing my breast - was a loss of my tribal identity.

Yet I took to wearing colorful scarves and using all the skills that I picked up as a department store makeup artist in my college years. My natural health practices - herbal remedies, exercise and rest - kept me looking like a healthy person even during the darkest days of chemo. The backhanded insult of this is that I looked urbane in my scarves and rouge, which even the healthiest chemo patients often use to keep color in their faces, but didn't fit in the comparatively conservative dress of the urban Indian community in which I live.

These losses of my personal sense of health, of my right breast and of my hair have forced me to look around at how other people deal with such alterations of their appearance. I watched my friend Elaine's hair grow back after chemo like the mane of a lion. I've heard about how my Yakama cousin, who is naturally balding, responds to Indians making fun of him by saying, ''I know my lineage.''

It's been two years since I started this column, and six months since I took a hiatus from writing it because as a cancer-free, well person I didn't know how to keep writing about my cancer journey.

In many ways, I didn't want to linger in cancer once I was done with it. I was never someone who thought I'd make cancer a life work. Even though I've been proud to speak about my experience with cancer at tribal health conferences, I resented it when at conferences about journalism, where I'd previously been respected for speaking about media issues, relegated me to the personal-story panel. The difference between these was I feel I can support people dealing with health concerns when I speak in tribally based or community-based conferences, but I don't feel like I belong on a professional journalism panel with others randomly selected to share personal recollections. It seemed that cancer even took my professional standing in some circles.

For me, this column was personal, but also I hoped that it explored health in the way that Native peoples view it. Sometimes that Indian medicine, as my late friend Apolonia Santos once told me, will be roots from our mountains and sometimes it may be chemotherapy. What it needs to be, I remember her saying, is what we need when we need it.

In September I shared a keynote speech with Apolonia at a youth conference at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon. She spoke to the youth of her tribe about the healing power of color in the traditions of land-based peoples around the globe. Apolonia was an artist, and she was dressed in the most elegant blue and gold gown. I heard of her passing from a long-standing battle with ovarian cancer in early December, weeks after her funeral.

In my own private remembrance I reflected on how I can't deny that cancer and its treatment have left scars, physical and emotional, in me. I also realized that my response to my diagnosis - writing this column in this newspaper - opened a door to my new life. Writing this column - sometimes while my mind was fogged by chemotherapy drugs - helped me find a path to personal healing. It's a healing that continues every time someone tells me that reading the column helped them. Part of this new life is helping to spread information about all kinds of health issues that Indians face.

Now, as my hair is long enough to reach the bridge of my nose and the nape of my neck, I have decided that the medicine I need now is regular trips to my favorite hair salon. There, Charles - who put my long locks up in romantic style for my wedding and then wouldn't let me pay - is coaxing my unruly tresses into styles, one after another, as it grows out. My aim, I told him, is to make this look like we meant to do it. Increasingly, it is, though my crowning glory may never lie down straight like it once did - like the perfect beauty of my stereotype of Indian hair.

India.Arie said it best when she sang:

''I am not my hair,

I am not this skin,

I am not your expectations, no.

Hey, I am not my hair,

I am not this skin,

I am the soul that lives within.''

Kara Briggs, Yakama, is senior editor and associate director of the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at Buffalo State College. A longtime journalist, she lives in Portland, Ore., and is a former president of both the Native American Journalists Association and Unity: Journalists of Color. Contact her by e-mail at