Suzan Shown Harjo: White Folks’ Hair Fetish

Suzan Shown Harjo's grandsons with their beautiful braids. (Photo by Duke Ray Harjo)

Suzan Shown Harjo.

Some white folks lose their minds over hair. Not just any hair. Hair of teenagers, especially those who are not white.

In New Jersey, a balding white man referee ruled that the dreadlocks of an African-American varsity high school wrestler did not meet regulation, and the teenager would have to give up his hair in order to compete. The athlete came to play, not to forfeit a big match, so he said shore. A blonde pony-tailed white woman, an athletic department trainer, cut off the teenager’s dreads, one by one by one, then in clumps.

The young man stood tall, staring at his coach through hot tears. He wrestled. He won. So, good.

In New Mexico, a blonde white woman schoolteacher cut off part of a Native teenager’s braid, without her permission -- rudely disposing of the hair on the student’s desk and making her cry – and then called another Native student “a bloody Indian.” It was Halloween, and some students were in “Pocahottie” costumes. The teacher was dressed as “Voodoo Queen” and quizzed the class on a poem she read, giving marshmallows to students for correct answers and making others eat dog food for wrong ones. She had brandished a box cutter earlier, but used a scissor for the hair cutting.

Two days later, the teacher was out of the job. She may be sued. She could face charges. So, good.

But, these children may never get over the assaults and emotional violence. So, bad.

Dreaded Hair in Buena, New Jersey

South New Jersey Today reporter Mike Frankel tweeted footage of the December 19 incident, from the unceremonious dreads snipping to the victorious wrestling maneuver. It went viral. The 16-year-old wrestler, Andrew Johnson, a student at Buena Regional High School, wrestled the week before with the same hairstyle and headgear. The referee, Andy Maloney, said Johnson’s hair was not in a “natural state” and his head cover was unacceptable. The ref gave the wrestler just 90 seconds to cut or forfeit. Maloney was suspended and the Buena School District said its team would not play in any games officiated by him.

The New Jersey Division of Civil Rights in the Attorney General’s Office is investigating under its 2013 agreement “to address potential bias in high school sports” with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. NJSIAA Executive Director Larry White, who is African American, told CNN that the referee will not officiate matches until the incident has been “thoroughly reviewed."

CNN reported that it “was not immediately clear which rule the referee said the wrestler had violated.” The operative rules specify a maximum hair length, but longer hair can be secured “beneath a hair cover attached to his ear guards.”

The Johnson Family attorney, Dominic A. Speziali of J. Fine Law Group in Philadelphia, said, “Andrew was visibly shaken after he and his coaches made every effort to satisfy the referee short of having his hair cut.” Speziali placed blame “primarily with the referee and those that permitted him to continue in that role despite clear evidence of what should be a disqualifying race-related transgression.”

The Courier-Post reported in 2016 that Maloney used a “racial slur” at a social function against a black referee, Preston Hamilton, who “slammed Maloney to the ground over the remark.” Maloney participated in “sensitivity training and an alcohol awareness program.”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who is white, tweeted, "No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports."

During this period of heightened racial and cultural sensitivity in New Jersey, Buena High School should take the opportunity to change its athletics name, Chiefs. Its logo is an “Indian” – with no hair, but lots of feathers, in a stereotypical Plains headdress. Its profile matches the offensive Chicago Blackhawks caricature: high flat forehead, dabs of cheek and chin paint and the unmistakable smile of a simpleton.

Attention NJ Civil Rights investigators: Buena is one of two dozen schools in New Jersey with “Indian” mascots. At the start of the 2018-2019 school year, Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School Raiders changed from a logo depicting an “Indian” to a knight’s armored helmet, so there’s a recent model for ending sports stereotypes in the state.

Horror Show in Albuquerque, New Mexico

On Halloween in Albuquerque, Cibola High School teacher, Mary Jane Eastin, put on a horror show in her classroom. A month later, Legal Director Leon Howard of American Civil Liberties Union-New Mexico wrote to the Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent, saying Eastin “engaged in criminal acts of violence and demeaned Native American students in unthinkable ways. Her conduct shocks the conscience and inflicted indelible injuries on several CHS Native American students.”

The ACLU letter characterized the teacher’s hair cutting as conduct that, “not only constituted battery on a minor which will leave deep psychological scars, but it was also an assault on an entire culture.” He stated that the other student “has become withdrawn and reserved, and is saddled with sadness that causes her to cry often.” (The Native students have not been identified by name, but have been bullied by other students because the teacher is not at school.)

Howard’s November 28 letter asked for an apology, safety plans, cultural competency training, public statement of no-retaliation, classroom materials that are culturally and linguistically diverse, recognition of Native American Heritage Month and calendaring of Pueblo Feast Days. . “Anti-oppression curriculum” also is requested in the letter, “including education about the harms of racism” and “instruction about the harms to Native Americans when non-Native American students wear Native American costumes on Halloween,” as well as “Native American history courses” and “anti-bullying policies.”

“Our country is in crisis,” wrote Howard. “We are witnessing before our very eyes a resurgence of unabashed racism—the type of racism that does not bother to disguise itself, that is unapologetic, and that seeks to inflict maximum harm. We are at a decisive point in our nation’s history. Those at the helm of our educational institutions will play a key role in determining whether our country marches forward, or slides back into the dark recesses of its racist past.”

It is ironic that the Native girls are represented by the ACLU, which sided with the “commercial free speech” of the Washington R*dsk*ns against Native Peoples. ACLU lawyers once decried the NFL franchise’s anti-Native hateful speech and behaviors, but did a 180-turn in the middle of its fundraising campaign. In this instance, the move would be comparable to the organization departing from its support of the Native students and defending the “free speech” of the teacher.

Who to Blame for “Crisis of Racism”

Who can be blamed for this crisis of racism that the ACLU letter so aptly describes? Among the living, let’s start with POTUS Donald J. Trump, who demands his “free speech” and tramples on that of non-white peoples, women and poor people who are not part of his base. It is virtually impossible to make a coherent argument that his “free speech” rhetoric is something other than railing against racial and cultural attributes and the equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.

Also sharing the blame for inciting “whitelash” (the term coined by CNN’s Van Jones) are the Trump nationalist shouting heads who constitute his shadow cabinet and ad hoc co-presidents: Tucker Carlson (immigrants are making America “poorer and dirtier”). Ann Coulter (“Godless” and “In Trump We Trust”). Sean Hannity (Trump’s BFFF, “Best Friend Forever at Fox”). Laura Ingraham (“Shut up and dribble”). Rush Limbaugh (“King of rightwing radio addicted to 'hillbilly heroin'”). Steve Miller (White House crypt keeper who fleshes out Trump’s wackier caffeine tweets), to name just a few.

One wonders if Trump’s diatribe and his minions’ echoes against Colin Kaepernick would have been as venomous if the NFL quarterback had close-cropped hair, rather than his trademarked Afro. Or, if a less follicly-challenged Trump would have used the office of the POTUS to exhort NFL owners to employment actions against the record-holding quarterback – who, after all, had led the 49ers to winning seasons and the Super Bowl.

Hair as Personal, Cultural Identity and Signifiers

Hair is part of the very identities, cultures and religions of many Indigenous Peoples. It also is a source of pride, not only for the individual wearing long or specially styled hair, but for entire families, moieties and nations. I say this in a very personal way, as well as an observer of our ways and times. I am the mother of a son, who once could sit on his hair. He is now the father of two sons, my dear grandsons, 8 and 10, who wear their hair in thick braids well past their waists.

I take great pride in my grandsons’ manifestation of pride in being Native. If they chose or had to cut their hair, I would love them the same, because it would be another way of identifying themselves or announcing a passage in life. In our way, we show respect for a loved one who has walked on by sacrificing a few strands, some part or the full length of hair, depending on what we want to say or for others to see or understand about our grief and loss.

Hair is deeply personal to everyone. At the end of 1974 when our family was new to Washington, DC, someone gave two tickets for a R*dsk*ns game to my husband, Frank Ray Harjo (1947-1982), who was Wotko Muscogee. At the same time that we despised the name, images and behaviors of the team, band and fans, we wanted to see a game at RFK Stadium. We hadn’t been in our seats for five minutes when non-Natives around us started talking about, over and through us, as if we could not hear them or did not exist as people.

We endured their loud, silly questions and even answered some. But, when they touched and tugged our hair, it was so creepy that we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

We tried to imagine a scenario that would have one or both of us sitting near people in a public or private place and saying, “Hey, are you a real whiteman (or whitewoman, redneck or honky, or African American or n-word)?” And, under no circumstance could we imagine ourselves touching their hair, skin or any other body part. We showered and washed our hair as soon as we got home and never again put ourselves in close proximity to the stereotyping franchise and its objectifying fans.

Everybody Everywhere Values Their Hair; Nobody Wants to be an Object

Peoples the world over place a premium on hair. One prominent example is documented in the Bible: Judge Delilah betrayed her foreign lover Samson to his enemies by cutting the source of his renowned strength, his hair.

In cultures the world over, hair is styled, cut and decorated with flowers, beads, shells, feathers, fur and hide, and glorified in as many ways as can be imagined. In some cultures and religions, hair is so highly valued that it is covered and hidden almost all the time.

Objectification is a big part of the current issue about hair. When people are seen as objects – as only their hair or skin color or apparel, for example – they do not have humanity or human rights in the eyes of the objectifiers, who can do anything they can get away with because they are subjects and others are objects. The dehumanized object is simply that, a non-human object.

The sports fans at RFK viewed my husband and me as our hair and skin, not people. The referee in New Jersey saw only dreadlocks, not a whole person. The teacher in New Mexico saw only hair and the color red, and acted on her white privilege.

Some Native People Are Hair Phobic, Too

White folks aren’t the only ones with hair fixation. It affects deculturalized Native people, too. Red Lake Chippewa Tribal Chairman Roger Jourdain (1912-2002) was part of the Minnesota Farm Labor delegation at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He often bragged that he helped throw demonstrators off the stage, when they were trying to interrupt Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey’s nomination as the party’s presidential candidate. Jourdain usually punctuated his reenactment with this: “Get off the stage, you long-haired hippies.”

A few years later, he was part of the renaming of “Republican Indians for Nixon” to the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association, which was used to undermine and discredit voices of Native activists, encouraging law enforcement officers to “scalp the braids off those a-holes in moccasins.”

In 1972, another Red Lake Chippewa leaders, Leon F. Cook, who was President of the National Congress of American Indians, convened a meeting of some of the “long-hairs,” most notably American Indian Movement founder Dennis J. Banks (1937-2017), who was Leech Lake Chippewa, and Washington football franchise owner Edward Bennett Williams (1920-1988) to ask for an end to the team’s despicable name.

Fifteen years later, many Native leaders and advocates were working for religious and cultural freedom, including for Native inmates, but the hopes of a Cherokee prisoner in Oklahoma were dashed by Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010). The warden had been convinced that cultural liberties were key to rehabilitation and a post-prison life without recidivism, and was willing to allow the young Cherokee man to wear long hair (as long as it could not conceal a weapon), if his tribal leader concurred.

Instead, Mankiller wrote that there is no such thing as a traditional Cherokee style or length of hair, and his request was denied. Her pronouncement followed the footsteps of her predecessor and mentor Ross O. Swimmer, Esq. As Cherokee Chief, he testified against traditional Cherokee people who were trying to stop the Tellico Dam from flooding a burial ground where Cherokee syllabary architect Sequoyah and myriad others rested. Swimmer swore that all the Cherokee people knew of their culture and traditions they’d learned from the dam scientists, and the case was decided against the traditional Cherokee people.

U.S. “Civilization” Rules Banned Cultural Expression, including Long Hair

Native culture denial is a spirit-killing legacy of the federal government’s “civilization” rules and practices and its Indian boarding schools, where incoming hostage-students were stripped, deloused and uniformed. Their hair was shorn and mouths scrubbed with lye soap, as the first “civilization” lesson: it was a crime to look, talk or pray Indian, and you might as well not even think Native.

The federal Civilization Regulations banned religious ceremonies, specifying the Sun Dance, and criminalized everything that distinguished one Native Nation from another and from non-Natives. They were in place from 1880 to 1936, with periodic updates, reiterations and pronouncements. One of these, a 1902 Indian Affairs Commissioner Circular, was entitled, Long Hair Prohibited. It directed the attention of agency superintendents “to a few customs among the Indians which, it is believed, should be modified or discontinued.”

The Circular declared that long hair “is not in
keeping with the advancement they are making, or will soon be expected to
 make, in civilization. The wearing of short hair by the males will be a
 great step in advance and will certainly hasten their progress towards
civilization. The returned male student far too frequently goes back to
the reservation and falls into the old custom of letting their hair grow long. He also paints profusely” – referring to healing and sacred ceremonies – “and adopts all the old habits and customs
which his education in our industrial schools has tried to eradicate.”

The superintendents were “directed to induce your male Indians to cut their hair, and both sexes to stop painting.” Civilization penalties were starvation and/or imprisonment, and the Commissioner reiterated those, writing that attaining compliance among “your Indian employees and those
Indians who draw rations and supplies…will be an easy matter….”

“The returned students who do not comply voluntarily should be dealt with summarily. Employment, 
supplies, etc., should be withdrawn until they do comply and if they become obstreperous about the matter a short confinement in the guardhouse at hard labor, with shorn locks, should furnish cure. Certainly all the young men should wear short hair, and it is believed that by tact, perseverance, firmness, and withdrawal of supplies the superintendents can induce all to comply with this order.”

The Circular concluded with a dress-code note and other dishonorable mentions of Civilization:

The “wearing of citizens clothing, instead of Indian costume and blanket, should be encouraged. Indian dances and so-called Indian feasts should be prohibited. In many
cases these dances and feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading
acts and to disguise immoral purposes. You are directed to use your best
 efforts in the suppression of these evils.”

Hair in the Political and Cultural Spotlight

In the late-1960s, much of America’s youth was emulating Native youth and elders’ hair lengths and braids. Hair was the manifestation of the counter-cultural movement in the U.S. and in Europe. In 1968, James Rado and Gerome Ragni wrote these excerpted lyrics, which Galt MacDermot set to music in the top Broadway show, Hair, and the musical number of the same title:

“Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, oh
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair"

“I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy
Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
Oily, greasy, fleecy, shining
Gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen
Knotted, polka-dotted
Twisted, beaded, braided
Powdered, flowered, and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied!"

“Oh say can you see
My eyes, if you can
Then my hair's too short….”

Over 40 years later, the 2011 Hair anthem was written by Lady GaGa and Nadir “RedOne” Khayat. It seems fitting to conclude this piece with their excerpted lyrics, as a dedication to anyone whose hair is intertwined with culture, tradition and freedom:

“I just wanna be myself
And I want you to love me for who I am
I just wanna be myself
And I want you to know I am my hair"

“I've had enough, this is my prayer
That I'll die living just as free as my hair
I've had enough, this is my prayer
That I'll die living just as free as my hair"

“I am my hair
I am my hair
Ooh, I'm my hair, I'm my hair”

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect and recover sacred places and over one million acres of lands. An award-winning Columnist for ICT and the Guest Curator and Editor of the award-winning exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, she has been awarded a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.

Comments (12)
No. 1-7

racism is a two way street-it started long before Donald Trump-the tendency to add a paragraph of blame Trump to any good story, is a shame.


walks-alone, I saw the out-loud, in-your-face, racist hatred emerge with the nomination of Barak Obama as the Democratic Candidate for President. Suddenly, all the progress I had believed had been made in the cause of tolerance, understanding, and respect of others who are not just-like-us was erased. What a huge setback. Donald Trump has appealed to those people who love money before humanity, fear power in people unlike them, and choose to hate, unconditionally.


Susan Shown Harjo, Thank you for addressing the two most recent publicized hateful racist incidents in our nations schools. Thank you also, for providing examples of your personal experiences of objectification and insensitivity at a Washington Football game. There are so many portions of this article which I want to share with one person and another....Thank you, thank you!


K-R-A-P.....long hair was conducive to body lice...and it was removed in the eastern nations regularly, even pubic hair...when going against the enemy, head hair was cut close....the CHOCTAW were long hairs but most eastern nations cut their hair....long hair was a western thing and so what if it gets grows BACK.....GET OVER THE SMALL THINGS AND MOVE ON......


You all know race hatred is not confined to European Americans.86% of interracial violence is black on white or Asians, Those stats from the DOJ under Erich Holder. Somalian girls commonly attacked Nepali girls in Minnesota and cut off their hair.


This is a very well written and researched article. Thank you Ms. SHOWN.


White folks aren’t the only ones with hair fixation. Hair is deeply personal to everyone. Peoples the world over place a premium on hair. Hair is part of the very identities, cultures and religions of many Indigenous Peoples. I take great pride in my grandsons’ manifestation of pride in being Native. If they chose or had to cut their hair, I would love them the same, because it would be another way of identifying themselves or announcing a passage in life.