Tiya-Marie Large, a member of the Pheasant Rump Nakota Nation in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, couldn’t understand why her 8-year-old son, Mylon McArthur, came home from school every day in tears.
“I’d ask him what was wrong. I’d ask him, ‘Is there anything you want to tell me? I promise I won’t get mad,’” she recalled. But Mylon refused to speak.
Large arranged for a meeting with his teacher, during which her son broke down sobbing, finally admitting that his classmates had been bullying him because he wore his long hair in braids.
The family had recently moved to Alberta, where Mylon was the only indigenous child in his class.
“I had to finally make the decision that I’d rather have him cut his hair than have him become suicidal,” Large said, pointing to the recent rise in teen suicides across Indian country.
Mylon decided to make a Facebook video explaining his decision and sending a message to bullies and educators: "You do not define me." The video quickly went viral (See below).
A source of power
Hair has special spiritual and cultural significance for tribes, though traditions and styles vary from tribe to tribe. Whether worn long, braided or bound in a knot, most North American indigenous peoples see hair as a source of strength and power.
“Hairstyles helped to define both individuals, nations, and societies within those nations,” explained L.G. Moses, professor emeritus of history at Oklahoma State University.
As part of 19th century policies of forced assimilation of indigenous peoples, the U.S. and Canadian governments began what Moses calls an “assault on tribal hairstyles.”
“Long hair signaled whether people were civilized, or sadly, in the minds of teachers and bureaucrats, remained ‘blanket’ Indians,” he said, using a disparaging term for Native peoples who retained traditional customs.
Beginning in the 1870s, federal officials in Canada and the U.S. removed Native children into off-reservation boarding schools, where they were forced to give up their languages, clothing and long hair. Even today, some public school systems, prisons and some workplaces still require Native Americans to cut their hair.
Conrad Eagle Feather, a Sicangu Lakota living on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation, recalls taking a job for an organization in California.
“I wanted to grow my hair out, but long hair was a violation of the company’s grooming standards,” he said. “I even had a spiritual leader go explain to them why it was important for me to wear long hair. But they said ‘No.’”
After the company altered policy to allow a non-Native man to wear a beard, Eagle Feather enlisted the help of a legal organization and ultimately won the right to grow his hair.
Turning to social media
Michael Linklater, a Nehiyaw (Cree) from Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, and a 3-on-3 pro basketball world champion, says he was harassed as a child for wearing his hair in braids.
“A lot of people who see indigenous men or boys with long hair see strength, and they see power. And it makes them uncomfortable. So, they feel the need to bring those people down,” he said.
Two years ago, after his own boys confessed to being bullied, Linklater decided to take action. In early 2016, he created a Facebook page that has since become a social movement — Boys With Braids.
“There needed to be a platform to foster pride in these young men, give them a voice and create some awareness on the issue,” he said, expressing hopes that the movement can put an end to bullying.
Boys With Braids has since spread across Canada and into the U.S., sprouting chapters in California, Michigan, New Mexico and South Dakota — states with large Native American populations.
On South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, for example, the local Boys With Braids chapter invites boys to weekly meetings and events, including horseback riding camps, cooking lessons and even a buffalo hunt, all designed to instill pride not just in hair but all Lakota traditions.
Recently, Nikki Lowe of Albuquerque, N.M., whose son has also experienced bullying, teamed up with another mother to host a first-ever Boys with Braids event for Navajo youth — who traditionally wore their hair in a tsiiyee, a knot tied with wool yarn — but more often today wear braids.
“We hosted our first event on Dec. 2,” Lowe said. “We invited a drum group, and we had boys make leather key chains in the shape of traditional shields, something they could carry with them to make them feel strong,” she said. In the future, she’s planning on meeting with state educators and expanding into other states.
As for Mylon, he has not yet been able to attend a Boys With Braids event but hopes to in the near future.
He tells VOA that the bullying has stopped since he cut his hair three months ago. He also announced another decision:
“I’ve decided to grow it out again, and I can’t wait!”