“I’m not a girl, I’m a boy, I just have long hair” … this is a statement my 8-year-old son says quite often to strangers who misgender him because of his long braid. He is a young Dene boy originally from Northern Saskatchewan who was born and raised in Saskatoon. His hair is long, long enough to sit on, and he is extremely proud of his braid and his Indigenous identity. I also have an older son, who is twelve years old, he too recently started to grow his hair long. This was not an easy journey for our family, to be here today, learning about our own culture and traditions, aiming towards reclaiming our Indigenous identity, and being able to educate those who do not understand us. Our home community, like many others, was negatively impacted by the residential school system. Many people in our family line attended these schools which means intergenerational trauma exists in our family. As Indigenous peoples, it is not undeniable that we have lost a lot since colonization began. However, the topic I want to focus on is young Indigenous boys with braids. This needs to be acknowledged as an act of reclaiming Indigenous identity, spirituality, and our connection to mother earth.
As many know, the residential school system caused generations of trauma in Indigenous peoples lives and families, including my own. My family lost connection to their traditions and spirituality. Our hair was our connection to mother earth and there are many teachings behind how important and sacred our hair is. My boys and I still have a lot to learn but we are proud that we have started the journey towards reclaiming our identity. This journey we are on relates to our mental health. We have learned together that we will be mistreated and misunderstood however, we have also learned that learning about our own culture and being proud of who we are, is our defence. I often tell my boys, “Nothing will hurt you if you know who you are and you are proud of who you are”.
One devastating fact I do know about the children in residential schools is that they had their hair cut short as soon as they arrived at the schools. In Indigenous worldview, one of the only times a person will cut their hair was when they were in mourning. So, imagine hundreds of Indigenous children, in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by strangers, speaking an unknown language, having their hair cut short. To them, this meant that they lost loved ones. They were confused and afraid, thinking that they lost their parents, their families, and even their entire community. In fact, this was done to make them fit into colonial society. Since then, many Indigenous peoples have stopped growing their hair due to the trauma behind it and the fact that much of the knowledge was lost.
Currently, in my community, many boys have started to grow their hair long as we begin our healing journeys. We may not know all the teachings behind having long hair just yet, but we are getting there. It needs to be shared with the rest of society what this means for Indigenous people. If you see an Indigenous person, especially a young Indigenous person, do not assume they are a female, use “they/them” if you are not sure. If you see a young Indigenous boy with long hair, tell them that it is beautiful and that it is something to be very proud of, because it is. This means there is a shift happening, we are rising as a people after years of mistreatment, displacement, injustices, and trauma. We are taking back our knowledge and reclaiming who we are.
As an Indigenous mother, and person in the social work and mental health field, I would like to share a simple teaching that speaks to mental health. It is the medicine wheel teaching, to simplify it, there are four quadrants that represent our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual being. This makes up the whole person and we must pay attention to all four parts for us to be healthy and balanced. If one is lacking, then we are not balanced, whole, or healthy. In our society, it’s the spiritual aspect that is often missing and seen as not important. If you are struggling with your mental health but have been taking care of your mental, physical, and emotional, try paying a little more attention to your spiritual and you will see change. This can be anything related to spirit, if you go to church, go more often. If you smudge and go to ceremony, smudge daily and go to ceremony when you can. If being spiritual means being out in nature, do that. Just remember that our spirit needs attention as well.
I remind my boys of this when they are feeling like they need a mental health day. There have been times when they feel so down because of people showing hatred or judgement towards their long hair. We sit together, we smudge, and they will often smudge their hair. I give them a safe space to share what goes on in their lives when they are away from me. It is a time when I remind them that their hair is their connection to the creator and mother earth. It is a time when I remind them of who they are, to remain proud, and to give their worries to our creator. It is a time when I remind them that we will make change, we will educate those who do not know, and we will encourage those who are afraid to do the same.
Practicum student at CFS Saskatoon
First Nations University of Canada, Saskatoon