06 October 2004

Cultivating Their Roots...

Let your hair hang down...



By Michael Redstone

VERMILLION, S.D.— Long hair is not for lazy people.

This was the advice Erny Zah’s father gave him when he started to grow out his hair.

Zah is very particular about his hair. He spends 15 to 20 minutes each morning caring for his waist-length black hair.

The first thing he does every morning is wash and condition his hair. For most men, this would be enough. For Zah, it is only the beginning of his hair care regimen.

Zah then takes a medium-tooth comb and parts his hair down the middle all the way back. He then uses polishing drops, which work to detangle his hair. He combs his hair to work the drops in.

“Sometimes conditioner just isn’t enough,” he said.

He then uses wax in his hair to hold it and keep it smooth when he braids it. Zah then combs his hair and secures it in the back with an elastic band, braids it, and secures it with another elastic band. Zah always braids his hair.

At one time, Zah wasn’t as particular in caring for his hair.

“I was lazy,” he said. “I used to have all kinds of split ends. It looked raggedy.” Zah, a Navajo, said culture played a part in his hair length.

He tried to grow it out when he was a kid but when his hair length reached his shoulders, he said, people would mistake him for a girl.

He started growing his hair when he got involved with powwows. He has tried many different types of products to find ones that could hold up during a powwow.

Hair-Care Arsenal

Zah has tried hard to find hair care products that are strong enough to tame his thick black hair. It is important to him that the products he is using can hold his hair. Zah’s hair care arsenal is more than just shampoo and conditioner. Each product offers something to help him make his hair look good.

He uses Paul Mitchell’s Daily Moisturizing Shampoo and Detangler, Vidal Sassoon Hair Polish, Paul Mitchell Extreme Texturizer and Paul Mitchell Extreme Clean Hair Gel and Montage Volumizing Mousse.

Another big reason for his hair length is the fact women like his long hair, he said. He said women have hit on him because of his hair, and he thought if women were starting to like his hair, then he should start to take care of it.

He has bad hair days just like everyone else. Zah said when the hair at the base of his neck doesn’t lie flat, that’s when he knows he is going to have a bad hair day. It’s on those days it seems like it takes longer to care for his hair, he said. Zah started to grow his hair out during an era when big hair bands were popular.

The only bad habit he said he has is keeping his hair braided and in elastics all night. “I can’t stand it when my hair is in my face,” he said.

Adelle Watts is a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana. Her hair is equal in length to Zah’s but when she cares for her hair, she is not as particular as he is. Watts’ hair care regimen is just to keep it clean. She washes it, and then lets it air dry or she fixes it. She changes her hair products often because if she doesn’t, her hair will become weighed down with product buildup. Her hair takes two to three hours to air dry.

The length of her hair has something to do with culture, she said. She is a traditional dancer and she braids her hair when she dances.

A New Culture

Some Native Americans are known for having long hair. Many tribes have different beliefs about hair length and styles. Some believe that hair length determines strength. Others believe that it is a sign of beauty and health. Both Native American men and women wear their hair long.

During the late 19th century, Native Americans were forced onto reservations and pressured to conform to mainstream ways. One way of conforming was forcing them to cut their hair. According to a University of South Dakota professor of American Indian Studies, Chuck Trimball, it was a quick way to get them to accept a new culture.

Young Native American children were sent to boarding schools around the country where they were forced to learn more about mainstream ways. To adapt meant to discard their traditional way of dressing and speaking. “We have our own values; courage and generosity meant a great deal to us. A big part of this was hair,” Trimball said.

He said that in the old days it was practical for Native Americans to have long hair. It was really hard to cut hair with a knife and over the years it became a part of the culture. Trimball used the story of Crazy Horse, a Lakota spiritual leader, as an example of the importance and symbolism of hair to some Native Americans. He said that Crazy Horse never bound his hair. He always left it free and flowing. It was a mark of his freedom and refusal to conform to the mainstream way of life, Trimball said.

Virginia Perez is a Dakota woman. She also has long hair that falls to the middle of her back, and she is not as particular with her hair as Zah. She washes and conditions it and then puts it into a bun and fastens it with a clip. If she is going out, then she puts a little bit more effort into her hair care, she said.

A Sign of Strength

Culture is also a part of her hair length. Long hair is considered a sign of strength and health in her culture. She said one big reason that she would have to cut her hair if someone close to her passes away. It is considered a sign of respect and mourning for a person to do this gesture, she said.

Jason McKibben is a member of the Chippewa tribe. Traditionally Chippewa men and women wore their long hair in braids. McKibben chooses not to wear his hair in this fashion. He says if he had his hair long, he would wear it traditionally.

McKibben has a simple way of caring for his hair. On an average day, he takes a shower but he does not wash or condition his hair. Instead he scrubs his scalp and rinses it with water. He washes his hair once every three or four days. He then rubs Redken water wax through his hair and finger combs it.

McKibben hasn’t combed his hair in years because he hates the way his hair looks when he combs it. If he doesn’t wash his hair, it starts to settle and becomes more manageable. When he does wash his hair, it starts to frizz, he said. His bad hair days happen on the days he washes his hair, he said.

His hair “gets curlier as it gets longer,” he said. “It starts to become a pain.”

This story was written as a class assignment at the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. Reporter Michael Redstone, Fort Peck Assiniboine, attends Montana State University in Billings. Photographer John Gould, Navajo, is a student at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M.


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