On the eve that Maangozit, Loon’s Foot, had definitely decided to cut off his braid, I received word that I would be traveling to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Editors requested that I report on actions such as the Oceti Sakowin camp that has been established to oppose construction of the Dakota Access pipeline near the tribe’s home.
When he heard there was camping and other Indian boys, he asked to join me. I could see visions of long Lego parties in our tent and eating forbidden sugar cereal, like Coco Pebbles, out of the box dancing in his head. We talked and thought about it. I told him the history of the struggle there, how folks wanted to keep their water and land safe for their families, and how the proposed pipeline route may be through sacred land. I could almost hear the tiny wheels going round in his 12-year-old boy mind. They seemed to slow as he considered the implications.
“Maybe I should keep my braid for them,” he offered. I almost cried. The braid represents so much more than mere hair in our family.
Maangozit had reluctantly agreed to keep his braid until after ceremony this past summer. Not an easy decision here in a mostly white suburb where Indians are thought to be part of a long-dead history. Fodder for scouts, Halloween and Thanksgiving, they are part of a distant Hollywood make-believe world. Few people here have knowingly met any Native people and therefore believe we are, like the passenger pigeon, extinct.
Gamely, however, Maangosit stood alone with his braid, bearing the shouts of, “Hey, get a haircut,” and occasionally worse. Beautiful, gentle boy that he is, he good-naturedly shined it all on, relying on his good looks and the short attention span of other 12-year-old boys.
He was happy he’d kept his hair, though, when we went north to Ojibwe country for ceremony. Several pretty, popular girls made a great fuss over him and his thick luscious braid.
And long braids were everywhere! Many of the men in our lodge are teachers at an Ojibwe language immersion school and wear their hair long. Patient and kind, they set a fine example for Maangozit. He finished the long arduous ceremony full of pride in himself and the Oshkabewis (helpers) there. He was anxious to carry on those good feelings when returning home.
Within his first week of school, however, he asked to cut off his hair. The teasing was tough to bear. Maangozit has learning problems, and his struggles seem to grow more noticeable to him and his peers with each passing year. No longer the carefree boy, he is becoming an anxious adolescent, racked with self-doubt and desperate to fit in.
Maangozit’s birth mother is a member of my tribe and a distant cousin. She has had many struggles in her life that may have contributed to his learning difficulties. He is often worried that others will judge her.
So, I relented. He has more than enough challenges; he needn’t take on the struggles of an entire ethnicity. He’s 12 and wants to be like his best buddy, Lucas, who lives behind us. There is a fence running between our backyards but my husband placed ladders on either side some years ago. Maangozit’s childhood has been an unbridled joyous romp back and forth over that fence, hauling armloads of ever-changing 12-year-old-boy obsessions from his friends home and back to ours.
But now, I feel his anxiety that it all may be changing. Bonds over Legos and Mine Craft may not be enough; his friends may go down different paths as they grow into young men. His hair has become a poignant symbol for me and my concerns about his well-being, pride and confidence in himself.
My hope is that traveling to Standing Rock may open up a world of pride for Maangozit. He will witness men and boys who look like him doing the extraordinary. In true Native fashion, the extraordinary will likely be found in the most humbling actions of daring to stand and work together.
I realize the good feelings will likely grow thin once we return, and he may ask to cut his hair after all. But he will have the memory of that enormous ceremony forever, that we are a people, that our strength transcends America’s fads and fancies. He will see that real Indian men can wear braids; they never go out of style.
Follow Maangozit and his mom at Standing Rock and see what he discovers as we journey to Standing Rock next week. What will he learn? What is the meaning behind long hair? What will he have to say about seeing so many men and boys with long hair?