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Houska: Native American Hair is a Religious Right

Tara Houska, Ojibwe, said Native American hair is sacred, and it is a Native American's religious right to wear it long.
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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.

RELATED: Mom to the Rescue! Native American Student Won’t Have to Cut His Hair After All

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.

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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.

On January 3, 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously found that a Muslim prisoner’s religious beliefs tied to the wearing of a beard outweighed the prison’s interest in authority, hygiene, concealment, etc. The Holt v. Hobbs decision relied upon the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which provides the same protections as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Just prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the 11th Circuit had ruled against a Native American prisoner wishing to keep his hair long. In light of Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court vacated the 11th Circuit decision and remanded the case.

These are not prisoners with significantly diminished rights, these are school children. School children who wish to exemplify traditional Native beliefs.

Although our customs may not be familiar, that does not mean they are not protected. And although not all Natives wear their hair traditionally, neither do all Jews wear yarmulkes. Religious beliefs are held by an individual.

Native Americans survived an era of “kill the Indian, save the man”, a time when the federal government took our children, decimated our languages, cut our hair, and criminalized Native ceremonies. Hair cutting at the behest of an educational institution brings to mind cultural genocide.

America should be well-past the time when such practices continue. Sadly, we are not.

We continue to fight against appropriation of our culture, theft of our land, children, and resources. We fight against poverty, against destruction of sacred sites, for sovereignty, for clean water, for the very lives of our people. We fight to educate the public about these issues, to seek understanding and revitalize the languages and cultures we have left. We should not have to fight for the hair on our heads.

Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Jason Daniels.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP and a founding member of Follow her on Twitter @zhaabowekwe.