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Tasha Spillett Tasha Spillett

PHOTO: Lenard Sumner; DESIGN: Andrew McManus/CBC

Hair and the ties that bind

Reflections on Afro-Indigenous identity, motherhood and the power of hair

There are many people on the Prairies who identify as Afro-Indigenous/Black-Indigenous, holding ancestry of both North American Indigenous people and the African diaspora. For Tasha Spillett, becoming a mother was an opportunity to pass on shared teachings, heal broken ties and create new memories.

By Tasha Spillett, for CBC First Person

Hair and the ties that bind

Reflections on Afro-Indigenous identity, motherhood and the power of hair

There are many people on the Prairies who identify as Afro-Indigenous/Black-Indigenous, holding ancestry of both North American Indigenous people and the African diaspora. For Tasha Spillett, becoming a mother was an opportunity to pass on shared teachings, heal broken ties and create new memories.

By Tasha Spillett, for CBC First Person

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This First Person article is the experience of Tasha Spillett, a celebrated educator, poet, and emerging scholar. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, including how to pitch an idea, please see the FAQ.




“Which one of your grandmothers are you prepared to deny?”

These words were laid at the shore of my consciousness by a Black Elder, during a time I was struggling with my identity.

They have tugged at my heart for more than a decade.

At the time, her words felt sharp as they moved against my forming and fragile identity.

I now understand them as an important invitation home.

I am a multiracial, Afro-Indigenous person.

I descend from different bloodlines and homelands.

I am pieces of many.

I am both whole, and wholly my own.

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Tasha and Isca Spillett
A childhood photo of Tasha Spillett, left, and her older sister Isca Spillett. (Submitted by Tasha Spillett)

There has never been a time in my life when I felt I needed to deny a part of my identity, but there have been gaps — in my case, filled with the absence of a paternal relationship — that I have had to work to fill.

Growing up Black and Indigenous on the Prairies meant not seeing many others like me. In fact, for much of my childhood, I thought my sister and I were the only ones.

I grew up rooted in Winnipeg’s vibrant urban Indigenous community. In many ways, I bloomed within it. For the most part, I have always felt belonging and acceptance. But I’ve also always been aware of the physical differences that separate me from others within my community.

The first difference I noticed, through my little girl eyes, was hair.

I was the puffy-headed kid running around at the powwow.

My hair only falls long and straight down my back, like Disney’s Pocahontas, after hours of heat and pulling. A drop of rain or a bead of sweat will make it bounce up again in a curly revolt.

The teachings passed to me from my Indigenous heritage have taught me that our hair is important. It carries teachings, and should be cared for and handled as such.

One of my favourite childhood memories is my mother boiling down sweetgrass and then washing our hair with the aromatic medicine water.

She taught me how to make small bundles of the hair collected in my brushes and present them in a prayerful way with each full moon.

Hair is sacred.

Hair is also political.

Lenard Sumner, Tasha Spillett and nine-month-old baby Isabella
A family portrait with parents Lenard Sumner and Tasha Spillett and nine-month-old baby Isabella. (Travis Ross)

I have spent a regrettable amount of time hating my hair. I’ve tormented it with chemicals and hot tools, including the household clothes iron wielded by my older sister.

Now, as a grown woman and a mama myself, I see how my mother pushed back against the self-hatred that many Black and Brown children carry from the forced consumption of settler-European beauty standards.

When I found out I was pregnant with a daughter, I felt an urgency to heal the places in my mind and heart that still carried the scars of self-hatred. I knew I had a responsibility to show her by example how liberating it is to celebrate our physical features and honour the people who live-on in our bloodlines. Our Ancestors, worthy of worship, who gift us the shape of our eyes, the tone of our skin and the coils in our hair.

With this on my mind — and to protect my pregnancy by limiting the toxins in my body — I decided to go cold-turkey off of what’s known in the Black community as “hair crack,” the chemical relaxers used to remove the curls and kinks.

Loving my hair as it grows naturally from the landscape of my scalp is more than a beauty fad. It is an act of self-love, a love steeped in resistance.

As my belly grew over the 42 weeks I carried my baby, so did my curls. At first, seeing fuzzy tiny curls pop up along my hairline caused a bit of anxiety. This would normally be when I would call my stylist for a routine treatment.

Not this time.

 Isabella Spillet
Baby Isabella gazes at her mother, Tasha Spillett, while enjoying an outdoor break from pandemic isolation. (Travis Ross)

I pushed on and sought out natural hair content online from Black women on journeys like mine. Hair connected me to a community of women that I belong to but hadn’t felt belonging in.

Like the teachings passed to me by my mother, my hair was medicine. It was healing the longing for connection that I had carried from my girlhood.

By the time I birthed my daughter, I had a healthy head of curls free from chemicals and full of ancestral love.

My daughter Isabella is a curly-haired Black-Inninew-Anishinaabe.

She will be the puffy-headed kid running around at the powwow.

May she — and the other children like her — feel free, beautiful, whole and loved.

Tasha Spillett draws her strength from both her Inninewak (Cree) and Trinidadian bloodlines. She is most heart-tied to contributing to community-led work that centres on land and water defence, and the protection of Indigenous women and girls.

“Hair is sacred. Hair is also political.”

Tasha Spillett

Tasha Spillet holds daughter Isabella just weeks after her arrival into the world. (Tasha Spillett)

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BLACK ON THE PRAIRIES

​Hair and the ties that bind

Credits

Creators, Producers
Omayra Issa & Ify Chiwetelu

Associate Producer, Researcher, Audio Lead
Melissa Fundira

Associate Producer
Orinthia Babb

Designed by Andrew McManus

Developed by Dwight Friesen

Special Thanks
David Hutton
Lise Kouri
Heather Loughran
Natascia Lypny
Emily Mills
Sean Trembath
Karin Yeske

With support from CBC Calgary, CBC Edmonton, CBC Saskatoon, CBC Saskatchewan and CBC Manitoba