Hair in tribal cultures has varying meanings based on each particular tribe. I’ve read articles and watched video logs of other Natives explaining the meaning of Indigenous hair, but in reality, it’s based on respective tribal traditions (although there can be some similarities). I know for our tribe, hair is important for several reasons. One of the reasons is due to the traditional belief in dream power that, in part, came from taking enemy scalps. Both men and women in our tribe wore their hair long, and lots in our tribe wore their hair using mud to keep the bugs out and used sap from mesquite trees in small twisted braids (so if you have lice, better bust out the mesquite sap and mud). One could argue that Quechan invented dreadlocks, but we certainly had them before Bob Marley made them popular.
I started growing my hair long off and on when I was kid. Sometimes I had a tight fade, sometimes I had a buzz, sometimes I had a bowl cut like I just came out of boarding school, and then sometimes it was just a bit longer. My Mom cut my hair, or at least until she messed up my bowl cut and had me looking like a chia pet. I hid under the bed and fell asleep, something I did when I was little to avoid life.
During my undergraduate years I really started letting my hair get long, because it was my way to identify as being Native. Not that you need to grow out your hair to do that, but I saw it as some form of resistance that challenged the legalistic mindset of the church. But even then, I still didn’t (and still don’t) wear my hair as a traditional Quechan. And most Quechans I know with long hair don’t either, because If we really wanted to wear our hair traditional we would have dreadlocks.
Most people thought I was trying to be super Native when I first grew out my hair. I remember a family friend, a Navajo woman, was teasing me and saying I was “all rez” and didn’t even grow up on the rez. I laughed, but I also knew I didn’t have to grow up on the rez to have long hair, just as much as you don’t need a bowl cut to show you’ve got a government education. However, the real reason I first grew it out was because I wanted to look like Antonio Banderas in Desperado.
You ever see Desperado? It was awhile before I saw it because I was a kid and it was rated “R”, but I was allowed to watch the opening scene of him rocking his guitar and I saw the movie poster. By taking a quick gaze at Antonio Banderas, you’ll notice the long hair, guitar, and that he had a beautiful girl by his side, Salma Hayek. I thought my attempt to be Desperado would of gave me some kind of higher level of attractiveness. Thank you Taylor Lautner for generating female interest in Native men again.
As I think about why I still keep my hair long, I continue to do it a symbol of resistance. I keep it long in memory of my ancestors who had to cut theirs because of the government assimilation process. I keep my hair long because I want people to know that whatever success comes my way, that I am undoubtedly a Native. I keep my hair long because I want my kids to know we can keep forms of our traditional identity alive today.