Children's book celebrates the cultural significance of Indigenous hair
Carole Lindstrom’s mom never allowed her to have long hair when she was young, and she didn’t understand why her relatives all had short hair in family photos.
“My mother had a photograph of my grandma and my two great aunts,” recounted Lindstrom, an award-winning Indigenous author of children's literature. “It sat on our TV set and it was a black and white picture of them with their dark hair short – really short – and just chopped off. And they were sort of dressed in the same kind of clothes.”
In the late 1800s, her relatives – along with hundreds of thousands of other Indigenous children over a century – were forced to attend one of the more than 400 federal Indian boarding schools in the United States. The schools were designed to culturally assimilate Native children, which meant cutting their hair, replacing their traditional clothing with uniforms, and prohibiting them from speaking their languages, among other atrocities and traumas.
“They also farmed, the children, [for] the white communities in the area, to do the work and the manual labor for them,” Lindstrom said. “My grandmother and my great aunt, they took in ironing, they did sewing, they did the clothing…and then the white families would pay the school.”
For Lindstrom, who is Anishinaabe/Metis and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, it wasn't until she learned about this history that she began to understand her mom's aversion to long hair.
“My mom didn't allow it because it made us look Native, it made us look ‘uncivilized,’” she said. “That kind of decided it was time to tell the story.”
The story took the form of Lindstrom's new children’s book titled My Powerful Hair. It follows a young girl who wants to grow her hair long. Over the course of the book, she talks with her relatives and sees her culture and life events woven into her hair "like a scrapbook," as Lindstrom describes it. At the end, the girl cuts some of her hair to bury with her grandfather and her mom decides to also grow her hair out along with her daughter.
For many Indigenous cultures, hair is not just the "topping on your head," Lindstrom said – it’s an extension of the person that connects them to the land and to the earth.
“I wish my mom was still here so she could be with me to celebrate who she really was and is — or all my ancestors, really,” she said through tears. “For the young children today who have to endure these things…I don't want them to feel despair. I just want to hug them, so this is my way to hug them.”
Steph Littlebird, who illustrated the book, said forced hair-cutting at Indian boarding schools was profoundly traumatic.
“It's different when someone cuts your hair without your permission, but it's another thing when you choose to cut your hair to honor someone,” Littlebird said. “The subtle acts of dehumanization that Indigenous people have experienced over time, like forced hair-cutting, is part of colonization…When you cut it by force, you're essentially trying to say that we are inhuman and that that we are just your livestock, essentially.”
Lindstrom said the story was partly inspired by accounts of Native children today who still endure intolerance toward their traditional hair styles and clothing, which in one recent instance was dismissed as "faddish."
“A fad is something that's new,” Lindstrom said. “Our hair has been around since time immemorial, and it's who we are. It’s just so wrong.”
Littlebird, who is a member of the Grand Ronde Confederation of Tribes in Oregon, said her illustrations are meant to reflect the complexities and resilience of her community and its history.
“I felt like illustrators don't give a lot of sophistication to children, particularly in a case like this where we have the story that is one about traumatic events,” she said.
Littlebird said her illustrations are a way to continue to represent Indigenous communities.
"Making sure that people understand that our community is alive and resilient," Littlebird said of her motivations to illustrate. "The way that I can do that is through color and vibrancy and bold lines.”
Lindstrom’s book comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law designed to prevent the separation of Native families. A few Mountain West states are looking to put their own laws in place to protect tribes in case the court strikes down the ICWA – a ruling that could broadly undermine tribal sovereignty.
“It's important for people to understand that the history that we speak about is not just something that we're, you know, hanging on to like a grudge,” Littlebird said. “It's literally still impacting us today…We're fighting erasure on so many levels, and so these books make visible our community in a way that's so beautiful and empowering.”
My Powerful Hair was published last month and is available in bookstores and online.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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