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Hair and metaphors

June 7, 2010

I have been thinking some lately about hair and metaphors. A little background is necessary.

From Barbara Mann’s Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (yet again 😉 ), p. 352*:

Hair had symbolic meaning well beyond its physical nature. It was the literal thoughts, dreams, and uki/otkon force of any individual flowing out of her head. Consequently, short hair was scorned as betraying mental poverty, while unkempt hair indicated the scattered spiritual status of its bearer, explaining the amount of attention (and bear-oil mousse) that women and men placed on hair to keep it smoothly in place.

This has more to do with learning to deal with your own individual head of hair, than with an idea that everyone’s should look the same. Choice of hair ornaments took on special expressive significance, as well.

In this context, the Tsalagi Long Hair Clan** makes more sense:

The Anikilohi is my clan. There are several unusual facts about the Long Hair Clan that, in my opinion, provide an insight into the social structure as well as the mind of the early Cherokees. I believe the people of today‘s world, including Cherokees, can learn from the ancient Anikilohi.

The clan name comes from the fact that, in the olden times, most Cherokee warriors shaved their heads for warfare and left only a scalp lock, but, the men of the Long Hair Clan did not shave their heads, letting their hair grow long. The people of the Long Hair Clan devoted themselves to peace rather than warfare.

The name “Stranger Clan” referred to the fact that non Cherokee strangers, captives, runaway slaves and others adopted into the tribe became members of this clan. Some were not of Cherokee blood and others were of Cherokee blood only on their father’s side. Since clan membership was determined by the mother’s clan membership, children born to a Cherokee father but a non Cherokee mother, could become members of the Long Hair Clan.

The members of the Long Hair Clan were the teachers and keepers of the ancient Cherokee wisdom and taught a newcomer how to be Yvwi (Yuh wee; true person, human being, Cherokee). It is very interesting to me that this clan was entrusted with these vital responsibilities. It is as if the ancient Cherokees were wise enough to realize that, often, strangers can see us more clearly than we can see ourselves.

The Peace Chief, who wore a robe of white feathers and wielded great influence in the tribe, usually came from the Long Hair Clan. Thus a person who was of mixed Cherokee blood or perhaps no Cherokee blood at all could become a Chief. I think the ancient Cherokees could teach many of today’s people a few things about the value of tolerance and diversity to a society. They knew that what is in a person’s heart is more important than degree of blood, skin color or any of the other superficial features by which many people judge others.

From what I understand, the Anigilohi also served as counselors, “combing out the hair”, which fits with the rest; peace is both internal and external. (The name can be interpreted differently: ‘Gilahi is short for an old ancient Gitlvgvnahita, the warrior women’s society, meaning “something that grows from the back of the neck”‘, which seems a bit odd in context.) Note that, in general, “Cherokee men usually shaved their heads except for a single scalplock. Sometimes they would also wear a porcupine roach. Cherokee women always wore their hair long, cutting it only in mourning for a family member.” Older men would often let theirs grow out. Customs were similar across the East.

So, letting one’s hair grow was associated with developing one’s mental abilities, and with a balanced and peaceful way of life. The scalplock (or “Mohawk” cluster of styles) reflected the perception that if you were concentrating on war, you were not using all your faculties, and very possibly preventing yourself from fully developing them. (The example of the Choctaw also suggests that there were probably more shorn heads after European Contact, which is not that surprising–and plays further into the metaphors at hand. Also that Europeans were seeing and describing more men who went warrior styley!) The gender-based differences in hairstyles also reflect attitudes and expectations, which weren’t that rigid. The choice of hairstyle seems to have had about as much to do with the kind of path a person was following at that point, than with gender roles per se.

This is kind of a long-winded introduction, but this set of metaphors had a lot to do with my decision to grow my hair out again for the third time in my life, the timing (coming out of a period of grief), and more recently learning to take care of it in a way better suited to my hair type instead of reaching for the clippers again when I didn’t know how to deal with it. My mother kept it very short when I was a kid, never having learned how to cope with her own similar hair, and I continued this pattern as an adult. I thought it was inevitable that my hair was going to behave undesirably, if allowed to grow in the way it wanted to. Before I started letting it grow, I’d defaulted to a 3/4″ buzz cut, so it would need basically no maintenance whatsoever.

The past few years, I have been trying to metaphorically comb my hair out, and a visible reminder is also good.

A recent application? Learning to accept and work with the kind of hair I’ve got, instead of continuing to act on what I’ve been told about how “unmanageable”, chaotic, and generally “bad” it is–and fighting against its basic characteristics, to try to make its appearance more acceptable to other people. As someone else with a similar hair type put it (emphasis mine):

I actually didn’t know I had wavy/curly hair until I was in college! This is due to my father’s girlfriend (an unnamed hairdresser), who forced me to brush through my hair everyday with a huge paddle brush…She even had my hair spiral-permed when I was 9 to make it look neater…I would brush through my hair mulitple times a day, hoping it would ‘calm down’ and just look like everyone else’s instead of like a d@mn hobo’s. Ironically this made my hair even worse.

Exactly. (I almost busted a gut laughing–in sympathy–at the hobo description, having been told myself that it looked like I’d slept in a ditch!) Not surprisingly, since I’ve been dealing with it more on its own terms, and treating it more kindly, it’s been snarling up and bushing/frizzing out a lot less, and I have been happier with the results. I’m learning to like my hair, which I never thought would happen. A little consideration in the way I treat it, and not trying to make it do unnatural things, has prevented the kind of hair crises (snarling and matting to the scalp) I used to think were inevitable given the way my hair is made. (Fairly obvious similarity to meltdowns and burnout, eh?)

I was struck by a lot of similar themes of self-acceptance when I ran across natural hair writing by Black women: if you don’t accept your hair and try to weed out the negative and unreasonable attitudes and unrealistic expectations toward it you’ve picked up, how can you like the rest of yourself (and people like you)? As recently mentioned, these themes resonated even more with me given some of the racist weirdness I’ve run into myself. And I could only be considered Black by strange hypodescent-based standards–i.e., neither culturally nor in appearance–so I escaped an awful lot of baggage there.

Whole categories of people are considered to have undesirable characteristics–by comparison with the people running things–which can be subdued through sufficient effort and willpower. Since I’ve been reading the CurlTalk forum, I have been impressed at the level of this kind of thing people report with their “unruly” hair. The thread with the “d@mn hobo” post (hurtful comments people’ve made about your hair–which ran to 26 pages!) gives an excellent sample of this kind of nastiness. And most of it sounded so familiar. 😐 If we’d only wash/brush/take the time and effort to straighten/etc. our hair, it wouldn’t be offputting/chaotic/ugly. If it still doesn’t look “right”, we’re obviously just Not Trying Hard Enough. (And yes, I think the racist associations in US culture have something to do with this. A couple of Europeans, just in that thread, expressed surprise at some of these anti-curly attitudes. Filthy hair and laziness, besides the overt “Zulu” and “Sambo” name-calling? Come on.)

Then there’s Gyasi Ross’s interesting series on The Politics of Native Hair (Part 3 is tagged differently), from a more Western perspective. I was struck particularly by Part 2: EXORCISING THE CURSE OF CAPT. RICHARD H PRATT, in which he describes attempts to control and assimilate Native people by making them cut off their hair (and it continues): “That is, what is it about Native hair–in the eyes of those folks seeking to create conformity in Native people–that makes them see our hair as the key to subduing our spirit?” Interesting stuff, particularly in light of some of the traditional symbolic value across North America.

“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”–Capt. Richard H. Pratt Image borrowed from Part 2. Caption: “Thomas Moore before and after his entrance into the Regina Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan in 1874. Library and Archives Canada / NL-022474” Before: boy in Western Canadian Plains dress with long hair in braids, in an outdoor setting. After: same boy looking like a different person, in a military-style uniform and short haircut, in an indoor setting. One suspects he was chosen as an example of the success of this assimilation tactic, due to his non-stereotypically-Native looks.

Coming from a firmly Eastern background, with a much longer history of forced surface assimilation, I find this kind of thing very interesting indeed. Especially given some of the views a lot of my relatives have adopted–including the idea that long hair past the age of 30 or so makes women look older, which is not seen as a good thing. The conflict with more traditional views hardly seems coincidental, with a lot of this stuff. Developing my own personal potential in the face of internalized assimilationist crap is another symbolic reason for letting my hair grow out.

It’s easy to apply this set of metaphors to accepting and working with the way your own unique mind is set up. And it makes clearer how expecting people to change their own basic natures to be more acceptable is unreasonable–and it just doesn’t work. At best, you end up banging your head against a series of walls if you try to change yourself like that. And it is never going to suit, no matter what you do. Do people who would expect such a level of control over who you are really have your best interest in mind?

An interesting phemomenon I’ve noticed lately, since I’ve been on the hair perseveration? Even though I’m still working off the idea that learning to love my own hair (just like it is) is important, I’ve found myself wishing it looked more like various examples of hair I’ve been seeing. Since I’ve been letting the curl develop, I find myself wishing the curl pattern were different, usually tighter with fewer wavy bits. These reactions strike me as an excellent example of what can happen, consciously or unconsciously, when you’ve spent most of your life thinking you’re just not good enough in certain ways.*** Those snakes are hard to get combed out, so a more balanced set of perceptions and approaches to life can be possible.

This kind of thing is easy to see in other contexts. I think it helps explain a lot of the more obnoxious Big-N Neurodiversity and Aspie Supremacy stuff, among other things.


* She continues:

Furthermore, the top of the head was the only proper exit for spiritual thoughts. For this reason, facial hair was regarded as a horrendous excrescence that sapped the mental energy of the hirsute. (As a result, the Montaignards concluded that beards helped explain why Europeans had such weak intellects: All their spirit power was going into the unnatural growths on their faces.)

Nigel, the Swede with a big beard, was not entirely amused when I pointed this out to him. 😉

This approach was not uncommon in the East, where Europeans first encountered Native people. Thus some of the tired old stereotypes expressed in the Dare to Ask: Do Native Americans have facial and body hair? mess, which I mentioned in “Ethnic hair”?. Even if you can grow a decent amount of facial hair, you probably won’t have much of a beard after a while if you keep removing it with tweezers or wax.

** That site is kind of dodgy elsewhere, but they get this kind of basic historical information right. That was the most complete description I could find quickly.

*** Incidentally, that is why I’ve postponed the Great Henna Experiment. I never liked my hair color either, considering it rather insipid, and have kept dye on my head most of the time since I was 14 or 15. I had to consider whether I was wanting to henna it up because I really liked the color choices (as I kept telling myself before), or whether I still felt a need to cover up its natural color. Especially now that a few silver hairs are showing up at my temples, and I was frustrated to find myself upset about that!

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