Monday, August 25, 2008

The Significance of Hair

Down in east Texas there is a little controversy brewing. Seems that the Needville Independent School District has a problem with long hair on boys. Worried that boys with long hair are a distraction, the school board thought it was in the best interest of the school to keep boys hair short. Oh, and I forgot, the long hair is on a Native American boy. Its being argued, by the parents, the their son does not need to conform to the hair on boys dress code for religious expressions reasons. Apparently, the just of the controversy is that in the school boards opinion the parents did not provide sufficient documentation that long hair on Native Americans constituted a religious expression. That is important because if it is a religious expression then it is a protected expression under the Native American Freedom of Religion Act and would open the door to the boy wearing long hair to school.

Of course, the father that passed on his oral history to the school board documenting long hair's religious significance and apparently oral histories don't carry any weight. If it ain't in print and authored by a respected anthro, it just can't be true. Of course, as a child, I remember sitting with the elders and listening with ears wide open, to the hysterics that they made as they recalled the 'sacred traditions' they gave to the anthros. And its amazing how many of them are still in print! Yes, its always the expert opinion of the majority whose voice carries the authority to define the minority. Sound familiar?

But of course, for me, that wasn't the real issue, whether long hair was a religious expression or not. No that was just their reason for closing the door on a loophole. The real problem as I see it is the asumption that only long hair on boys is distracting, able to disrupt the educational environment, hinder the ability of the students subjected to the presence of the boys long hair, to learn.

But for some reason it is not a distraction for the girls to wear long hair.

Clearly its a gender issue, a re-enforcement of the binary. Boys wear blue and girls wear pink. I wonder at what length the Needsville school board declares a girls hair is too short? That it becomes a distraction. Or if a girls hair is ever so long that it too becomes a distraction. Or if it is even a matter of concern. I didn't see any mention of girls hair length in the schools dress code. So there it is again, that an unwritten oral history can't be documented; laughing at the audience, catching the school board with its own lack of written word. I don't know, maybe I've got it wrong, because what to I know about gender, or hair.

The summer that I turned 14 my Abuelito said to me, 'Mijo, it is time that you should start wearing your hair long, to say who it is that you are.' Part of a boy's right of passage. And I really embraced it, because I could go back home with my hair long. Because it was the 60's, I never had to defend the cultural significance of my long locks or wonder how they may have disrupted the education process. In fact, Sen. Dawes would have been proud to see how well I assimilated, how easily my hair was lost so many, many times over with the rest of the long hairs, protesting against conformity. But that summer I also knew that my Abuelita understood the significance of my long hair, that the time was right for me to be taking those first steps into adulthood, because when I was getting ready to return home she honored my adulthood with a gift. A bean pot, given to girl's, at puberty.

And so it sometimes is, my euphoria over my long hair was short lived, not because of something some one made me do or because I didn't want to have long hair. It was because, in the winter of my 15th year that my great, great aunt passed. So I cut my hair. And that was the last time I cut my hair. For the next 30 years of my life, my hair became my strength. It has been said that the length of ones hair reflects what one has learned. I understand this and one of the most important things that I learned was embodied in that hair. As long as his hair was long she could walk in his shadow.

Of course, when I talk of life's events I often speak in context movement along a circle of life. In our teachings the circle suggests there is neither a beginning or an end, a right of wrong, morning or night ...... male or female. At any given point of time, or place, or action, it is accepted that regardless of which way one goes, one can always get back.

This year my brother passed and I cut my hair. A moment on my circle. I've had to think about this more than I like because as much as I can rationalize his passing, he still is my brother. Was my brother. So I cut my hair to honor his life, gave of myself, for all he gave for me. See, my brother was the first in my family that she came out to. At his wake a friend of my brother came to me and said, 'Remember when you first came out, well Karlo really got it. he said, 'You know, my family has changed, really changed. When you only have a brother, you sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a sister. I guess I'll find out."

So this time I think I'll keep my hair short. The circle has come around. She's much stronger now and he is walking in her shadow. And my bean pot is well seasoned.

Today, Adriel started kindergarden, his hair in braids.

Just an update, 22 Jan. 2009. A Federal District Court ruled that the Needville Independent School District’s policy violated state law and the U.S. Constitution by punishing the American Indian kindergartner for religious beliefs that require him to wear his hair long.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Stories like these are utterly bizarre to me, because all my life, I've gone to school with boys who had long hair - Sikh boys with their hair in buns, Native boys with braids, white boys with rat-tails and mullets. No one ever considered any of them distractions, any more than I was a distraction as a little girl with short hair. I certainly faced difficulties among my peers for breaking gender norms in a number of ways, and the school administration wasn't always an ally, but at least my right to an education wasn't contingent on conforming to arbitrary standards.