The first few months of school with a new class and a new teacher can be hard for any child, but for one Cree family with four boys who wear their long hair in braids to honour their heritage, unwanted attention and questions are inevitable.
Azure, their mother, says they are fairly used to experiencing this at the start of a school year, and her boys are resilient. She became more than a little concerned, however, when her five-year-old son, Adam, came home from his school in south Edmonton with his hair undone for the second time this year. He was upset and crying.
Azure and three of the four boys, including Adam, are members of Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis. Black Press Media has honoured the family’s request to not publish their last name to protect their identity.
Azure braids her son’s hair tightly each morning, from the nape of the neck. The elastics are tight and shouldn’t come out on their own. She knew something wasn’t right and asked him what happened.
His hair had been tightly braided that morning for picture day with extra hairspray, so it just didn’t make sense the ties would come out on their own.
When asked, Adam admitted the elastic had been pulled out by another child at school.
“In the moment, when it happens … you’re hurt, you’re frustrated,” said Azure.
It was very upsetting, as other children shouldn’t feel it is OK to be touching his hair, never mind pulling out his braid, she says.
In her initial reaction, she made an eloquent post to a Ponoka community Facebook page that read, in part:
“This is a boy with a braid. His name is Adam …
“This is a boy with a braid. He is proud of his hair … Sometimes he gets called a girl and other times his peers will pull his hair ties out and has no one to help him tie his hair back up until the end of the day.
“This is a boy with a braid. It hurts his feelings when he is called names because of his long hair.
“This is a boy with a braid. We will not cut his hair because people do not understand.
“There is no reason why he should come home ashamed of his hair; but today he did. It hurts. The tears hurt. Hugs and words were not enough.
“Everyday we will push through this and everyday he will walk through those doors at school with pride because he is a boy with a braid.”
Azure stresses, “We love our school,” saying the school was very quick to respond and it just took one conversation to address the issue.
Azure says she spoke out, not to point fingers or to create controversy, but to spread awareness and start a conversation.
Since her post, Azure has received messages from people from far and wide.
A “massive” amount of messages of support poured in from Oklahoma, Kansas and Hawaii, and from closer to home from Lacombe and Drayton Valley.
Some told her stories of their own painful experiences and others thanked her for sharing or gave messages of support.
“It’s powerful, very powerful.”
Some were from teachers, moms, dads, foster parents of native children, and were from all ethnicities, including German, Irish, Scandinavian and Métis.
One story was particularly difficult for Azure to hear, of a young adult in their 20s involved in sports, who asked their mother to cut their hair, deciding they couldn’t take the taunting any longer.
“That was a really tough story to hear. I can’t imagine having to do that.”
Some messages were from parents whose children have been bullied, including one mother of a child with autism.
“It’s almost like everyone has the same experience.”
Different cultures grow their hair for different reasons.
“Our significance is learning about our culture and wanting my boys to understand who they are and their identity,” said Azure.
Her boys all started growing their hair when they began dancing. Adam has grown his hair since he was born and started dancing when he was two years old.
“It’s all they know,” she said.
Azure and her mother are also survivors of residential schools, and part of her boys keeping their hair long is a tribute to what they endured, she says.
Azure says it isn’t about the past though.
“We’re not about that. We want to renew relationships with everyone and move forward,” she said.
“This incident — it is starting a conversation. That is reconciliation for us.”
Azure says, “native or not, we all have a story,” and having a conversation with your children about celebrating differences can make all the difference, adding she also wants to learn more about other cultures.
“It’s not just about braids and its not just about being native. Everyone has something special about them and we need to honour that.”
A statement provided from the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) said that, “Student safety is the top priority in all of our schools. Ensuring our schools are safe, welcoming environments where students are valued and treated with dignity and respect by both staff and other students is at the core of who we are,” adding that all complaints are taken seriously, with immediate action taken.
“Schools are expected to provide opportunities for all students to become knowledgeable about Indigenous values and culture and to demonstrate respect and recognition of First Nations, Métis and Inuit values and cultures.”