‘It shows my strength’: Why this boy braids his hair

Story by CBC Kids News • 2019-09-24 10:33

#BoysWithBraids network pushes back against bullies

Every morning before he goes to school, 16-year-old Theland Kicknosway braids his hair.

The Ottawa teenager, who is Potawatomi and Cree, has been growing his hair long since he was a little kid, and braiding it himself since he was eight.

“It shows my strength and my pride,” he said.

There was a time when his family members weren’t allowed to wear their hair long and braided, Theland said, so going through the daily ritual “means a lot to me.”

Now, some people are fighting back against the part of Canadian history that shamed Indigenous men and boys for their hair.

Black and white photo shows boys with short hair making beds.

Many Indigenous kids were forced to cut their hair when they went to residential schools. The institutions were set up by the Canadian government and run by churches. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From the 1870s to the 1990s, many Indigenous kids were sent to residential schools as a way to integrate them into Canadian culture.

Many students were abused at the schools and prevented from practising their traditions.

While residential schools no longer exist in Canada, the shaming continues in many ways.

'I heard a snip'

Theland said he’s been bullied because of his hair — and he’s not alone.

Last year, when Rafe Vadnais was 11 years old, another student cut off part of his braid at a Calgary school.

“I heard a snip,” Rafe told CBC News at the time, and "I saw hair and the elastic on the floor.”

Rafe Vadnais shows his hair in a braid down his back from two angles.

These photos of Rafe Vadnais were taken on May 28, 2018. Later that day, another student tried to cut off his braid. (Submitted by Shantel Tallow)

Why does it matter?

Rafe’s mother, who is a member of the Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta, said she was taught what long hair meant to the Blackfoot people when she was young.

Shantel Tallow said she passed that teaching on to her son.

In her culture, she said, hair is only to be cut as a sign of respect when a loved one dies.

A prayer is also said every time you braid, which sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Theland, who is from the Walpole Island First Nation in Bkejwanong territory in southwestern Ontario, has a similar ritual.

Listen to Theland describe his morning routine:

Theland is part of an online collective called Boys with Braids, which celebrates Indigenous boys and their hair.

Michael Linklater, who is Nehiyaw (Cree) from Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan and a player with the Canadian Elite Basketball League, started the network when he saw how his two sons were being teased for their hair.

The movement has sparked a hashtag, as well as events across Canada and the U.S.

Michael Linklater poses with a long braid hanging down his back.

The founder of the Boys with Braids online collective, Michael Linklater, said his goal is to give Indigenous boys the tools they need to challenge bullies. (Submitted by Michael Linklater)

Theland said it “means a lot” to be part of the network, because he can “show the next generation” how to wear braids.

As for boys who are considering embracing their long hair, he said he would give them the same advice his mom gave him when he first started wearing a braid.

“Don't be afraid of what people are going to think,” he said. Instead, focus on “what's right for you.”

With files from the Canadian Press, Unreserved/CBC Radio

Get your class on the same page, add this to
Google Classroom

Was this story worth reading?