What's Your Story

'Hair carries memories:' how one filmmaker is sharing Cree teachings with her sons

Tapwewin and Pawaken are 10-year-old twin brothers approaching an important ceremony: cutting their hair for the first time.

'It's interesting to watch children trying to understand their place within a culture.'

Cree filmmaker Jules Koostachin and her four sons, Mahiigan, Asivak, Tapwewin and Pawaken. (Jules Koostachin)

Tapwewin and Pawaken are 10-year-old twin brothers approaching an important ceremony: cutting their hair for the first time.

The ceremony is a meaningful rite in Cree culture, and their mother, filmmaker Jules Koostachin, has been preparing them for it for a long time.

Brothers Tapwewin and Pawaken at three-years-old. (Jules Koostachin)

"My teaching around hair is that hair carries memories," says Koostachin. "So they're letting go of childhood and moving into the next phase of their life. The hair is significant of that rebirth."

She recalls that her older sons, 22-year-old Asivak and 20-year-old Mahiigan, looked forward to the same ceremony when they were younger. "I think they enjoyed it, they were like, 'this is great I don't have hair in my face anymore.' They liked the freedom of it."

The twins have also been looking forward to when their own hair will be cut, asking "can we have short hair now? Can we cut our hair now?" says Koostachin. "So I think they're excited about it! And it means they're excited about the next phase of their lives too."

How does Koostachin know when it's time to cut their hair? "When they hit puberty!" she explains. "So as soon we see any little sign, like the voice changing... that's when."

NiiSoTeWak: two bodies, one heart

In Koostachin's new short documentary, NiiSoTeWak: Two Bodies, One Heart, she had Tapwewin and Pawaken ask questions of their parents and brothers. The film is charming, moving and insightful as you watch the young boys making sense of their world.

When their mother reminds them in the film of the upcoming ceremony to cut their hair, she says, "what are are we going to do with the hair? I still have Asivak and Mahiigan's hair," to which one of the twins sighs off camera, "ew gross."

"It's not really gross," Koostachin replies. "Do you know what hair means?"

"No," they say.

"It carries all your memories, so when you hit puberty, when you become men, we give those memories back to the earth," she replies.

Two-year-old Tapwewin and Pawaken with the Toronto skyline. (Jules Koostachin)

Adapting tradition

Koostachin says in making the film she was reminded of cultural teachings we sometimes take for granted. "It's interesting to watch children trying to understand their place within a culture," she says. "We know these things, we learn these things, we're mature and we can process. But for kids… they're learning this. They're trying to figure out what this all means. And it's fascinating to to see it unfold on screen."

That's how native identity is — it's fluid and it changes.- Jules Koostachin

Soon, Koostachin will take a bundle with her older sons' hair and with ash from the twins' placenta to her home community of Attawapiskat in Ontario. "The ceremony is that you tie the bundle at the edge of the community. My mother told me that we tie our birthing bundles to a tree," says Koostachin.

Currently based in Vancouver, Koostachin was waiting to return to her traditional territory to bring this bundle to the land. In fact, four years ago, she made another short documentary, PLACEnta, about her search for teachings around placentas and has been waiting these years for the right time, and the opportunity, to perform the ceremony.

Koostachin, her partner Jake, and their twin sons. (Jules Koostachin)

"It just feels like an appropriate thing to do. To bring [the bundle] up to the edge of the community where their grandparents are buried, that seems right to me," she says. "So I am going to do this with their ancestors up in northern Ontario."

With this ceremony, and when Tapwewin and Pawaken are of age to have their hair cut, Koostachin says you have to work with what you have. "You have to adapt, right? Things change, and it depends on where we're living, and what's happening."

"That's how native identity is — it's fluid and it changes. We adapt and we are not fixed in the past"

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