Besides the need to look presentable, there are two reasons that my Mom cut my hair as a kid, 1. Lice and 2. Funerals. Lice were straightforward. Lice get out of hand and sometimes rather than going through my hair with a fine-tooth comb strand by strand, my Mom cut my hair. Funerals were a little different.
I can’t remember the first funeral I went to (My parents took us to a lot of funerals as kids because my Dad was a licensed minister). But I remember bits and pieces of the first time I went to our Big House. And If I’m honest with myself about the first time I went, it was a bit scary… because I didn’t understand it.
As we approached the Big House, where our tribe holds our wakes, you could hear the singers’ gourds and see women start to sway to the rhythm of our ancient songs through the small window openings. I walked in and saw the old wooden pews beneath the dim lighting, and the mourning family with women crying at the open casket. My Mom directed me to go shake hands with the family members mourning and then we went to sit down. We just sat there, no talking, some whispering, and a lot of reflecting. I watched the Bird and Pipa singers most of the night, and watched the Quechan women stand and sit during the songs. After we had spent a few hours there, my Mom said we were leaving. We proceeded to shake hands again, but this time with everyone in the Big House. We squeezed through the small aisles to shake everyone’s hands and I watched as my Mom smiled at some of her family and childhood friends. Before we left, I went with my parents next door to eat some pasole and tortillas and watched them visit with our relatives and friends they hadn’t seen in years.
I went to my Nana’s house to sleep for a few hours and the next morning my parents woke me up to bring me to the cremation ceremony. I watched as my Uncles brought the body out of the casket and laid it between the cottonwood. Soon after they asked for blankets and then my Uncle stood there and said a word in Quechan, meaning clothes. My Mom leaned toward me and said, “Take your shirt off.” I didn’t understand why, but I also didn’t question her. As I started to see everyone putting their shirts and dresses on top of body with the blankets, I took my shirt off and put it in too. My Uncles lit it all on fire. I stood there watching the remains, blankets, and clothes become engulfed in flames with smoke leading to the morning sky. We left the ceremony not too long after, and that evening my Mom cut my hair.
I never quite understood the tradition of why we threw our clothes into the fire, but a few weeks ago I was sitting with an elder. Among many things he imparted to me, he mentioned that during the death of the creator in our tribe’s creation story the animals didn’t know how to mourn, so they began to take their ears and tails off to throw into the fire. A piece of us dies when someone we love passes away, and it’s one way we remember that. In a similar vain, it’s why my Mom cut my hair, to signify a piece of me was taken.