Tougher than Buffalo Hide: How I learned to love my Afro-Indigenous hair
As I child, I rarely saw pictures of people with mixed race hair like mine
By Adeline Bird
In both my cultures, hair is a very sacred thing.
On my Indigenous side, hair is seen as a constant reminder of our connection to culture and to a worldview founded in the sacredness of relationships. The act of braiding a child's hair is the beginning of an intimate and nurturing relationship.
For many African communities, hair plays a significant role in culture. It symbolizes one's family background, social status, spirituality, tribe, even marital status.
But I haven't always felt that my hair was sacred.
Tight, easily tangled curls
When I was a child, straight, long blonde or black hair was praised. You rarely saw pictures of people in the media with hair like mine.
I'm mixed race. My mother is an Ojibwe woman from Rolling River First Nation. My biological father is from Tanzania.
Unlike most mixed race kids, my sister Thomsena and I were not born with loose, cascading curls. We had really tight curls that easily tangled. Let's just say, it was tougher than buffalo hide.
We washed and tried to comb our hair but because my mom knew nothing about black hair, she had no idea how to care for it.
One morning when I was about six or seven, my mom had enough of our hair. She declared: "Today we are gonna do something with that hair of yours."
"THANK YOOOU!!!" I squealed.
We jumped from our beds, still wearing our bathing suits. (For some reason, my sister and I loved sleeping in our bathing suits.)
Thomsena went first. My mom began slowly combing my sister's hair. It didn't work. Tears rolled down my sister's cheeks as she began to whimper.
'Operation Natty Hair'
Mom sighed, gave up on my sister and looked over at me. I could see the disappointment in her eyes. But she wouldn't give up. It was my turn now.
I sat on the floor, between her legs. Mom coaxed, cajoled, pulled, and then yanked the comb through my hair.
Then, it was time for professional help. Operation Natty Hair was on.
At the salon the hairdresser looked at our hair, then back at our mom and said, "Sorry, we can't help you ma'am."
But she wouldn't give up. She's a strong, determined Anishinaabe woman. Just like an eagle, we were bowed but not broken.
It was time for Plan B. What's better than one hairdresser? Many, many hairdressers.
My sister and I plopped down into the chairs as four aspiring hairdressers circled us, one by one, examining our matted messes. Were they fighting over who was going to untangle the knots? Were they strategizing? Was it a pep talk?
Finally, one student stepped forward. She gently washed and deep conditioned our hair. Then she combed our hair, patiently working on the knots. It took her four hours. And then she tenderly braided our hair.
I felt on top of the world. That was the beginning of my love affair with my hair.
Today, I care for my own hair. I love lathering it in coconut oil, butters, conditioners. I wear it natural, in braids, and straightened. You name it, I love doing it.
And I love my buffalo hide hair.
This episode originally aired in February 2020.