Newsletter: How an Indigenous cartoon taught a real life lesson

This Indigenous character’s braids provided an opportunity for conversation about reclaiming culture

You wouldn’t think something as simple as one’s hair would be a symbol of reclaiming Indigenous culture, but it is.

I pondered this for a long time after recent internal discussions at The Discourse about braids worn by an Indigenous character in a comic illustration about First Nations housing on reserve.

There was a concern that the character of Ella may be perceived as stereotypical, and that a more contemporary look be considered. It was a teachable moment.

Indigenous people have different cultural codes. But there are similar cultural teachings between them, and the significance of one’s hair is one of them. Indigenous people, like many other cultures, express identity, spirituality and individuality with their hair.

For Indigenous people, our hair connects us to our heritage and our ancestors, but also to the creator and earth.

Braided hair is symbolic of strength, wisdom and honouring ancestors.

I’ve talked to Indigenous parents who deeply bonded with their children when braiding their hair while imparting life’s teachings. For many Indigenous people, the only time they cut their hair is when a family member dies, and it’s cut off as a gesture of respect, offering and grieving.

All that changed after colonization, especially after residential schools were imposed. Staff cut off the hair of many Indigenous children to rid them of their culture and individuality. Generations of Indigenous kids endured this, then suffered with the memory as adults.

Today, Indigenous people are reclaiming what was taken from them. I see it in dress adorned with Indigenous symbols and sayings. I see it in Indigenous-inspired tattoos. And I see it in hair.

I don’t often see Indigenous people with braided hair out west. But one summer some years ago, I went to a sun-dance ceremony in Arizona. I saw a lot of Indigenous men with hair braids, but also children and teens wearing them too. To think, they were the age where they would have had them cut off in residential school, yet now they were free to be who they are.

After much discussion, our braided comic character kept her braids. The artist, Joshua Pawis-Steckley, an Ojibway from the Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario, said the braids were a symbol of reclaiming culture, and that this is how Indigenous people he (and I) grew up with looked.

The character may have been fictional, but the history of Indigenous people and hair, and the importance of reclaiming what was taken from them, isn’t.

How do you wear your hair, and why? Is it important to you as a form of cultural expression? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me via Facebook, Twitter or email. Finally, if you enjoyed reading this newsletter, please ask your friends to subscribe.

ICYMI

  • Remember the story about Port Alberni in my recent small-town reconciliation series? Read here about the recent public reconciliation forum held there that was attended by more than 100 residents.
  • Reconciliation within First Nations is going to be difficult. Reporter Andrew Bailey documented the Ucluelet First Nation’s struggle with drug dealing on its reserve.
  • The University of British Columbia’s library in the Okanagan has put together a smart online reconciliation hub. You can find recommended readings about reconciliation, a guest speaker series and tool to help you share your thoughts on the  readings on social media. [end]

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