She said she loved my hair.

It is long, dark, and straight. She described it as beautiful and she wished to grow it as long as mine someday, down passed my lower back now. I smiled and thanked her for the kind compliment. I even let her touch my hair, easing her curiosity to know if it were real or not.

She didn’t know that as a young girl I used to hate my hair. I envied the girls with short hair. They didn’t have to wake up early to see their mother standing at the foot of the bed holding a comb. They could color their hair and chop it up just how they liked and nobody would say anything. They had so much power.

I cried and cried because my hair was too long. I hated the small tangles I’d come home with just as much as the aching relief of undoing my mother’s tight braids. Everyone around me looked exactly like me. We all had long black hair.  We existed in the shadows, out of the spotlight that only showed short blonde hair. Under this spotlight, beauty lived.

When I was fourteen years old, I chopped it all off. I felt liberated; I felt beautiful.  I smiled at my new appearance, as my mother’s heart broke. I ended the early mornings of brushing my hair. I ended the excitement of braiding my hair for the pow wow. But, I wanted short hair so bad. I wanted to be different. I needed to be beautiful.

To me, my hair showed the world that I am Navajo.

My skin is brown.

I live in a place recognized only as the land where cowboys killed Indians.

My hair symbolized my inferiority.

My hair was a reminder of a history I never lived through, but mourned over everyday.

I read the books, about the Indians and their “savage” ways. The descriptions of degradation and the dehumanization made me feel embarrassed. In school I was taught that Native Americans are people of the past, defeated.  So I was confused as to why I still existed, and all I knew was that I wanted was to exist as one of them. I didn’t want my long hair,  I was ashamed.

She didn’t know that it took every ounce of courage in me to realize that my hair is beautiful. Most of my life I have struggled to accept my uniqueness as beauty. I struggled to accept my identity and my culture as my own.

I was a little girl being shaped by a world that didn’t want me.

Then one day, I vowed to never cut my hair again.

I vowed to never let this society influence my thoughts.

I decided to be proud and not ashamed of who I am.

I decided that the words in those books were fabricated, written to poison the minds of little girls like me.

I discovered that in the shadows is where the real beauty lies.

So, I promised to learn to love myself.

And to say, “yes, I love my hair too.”

Published by Shandiin Herrera

Diné, Duke University Alumna, Lead for America Hometown Fellow

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