Article Written By Jacqueline Keeler - Navajo
I have often heard that, for Navajo people, hair is our memory. Before my traditional Navajo wedding, my long hair (it went down to my waist) was washed with yucca root. It foams up quickly. Afterward, my hair was brushed with a bundle of stiff grass called a be’ezo. I still have that bundle and I occasionally brush my children’s hair with it. The act of caring for the hair, one relative to another, like my grandmother and family did for me, is an expression of love to me. Sharing it with my children feels natural. In fact, I cannot imagine not doing it. I can still hear my mother, my shi má making comments in Navajo as she brushed my hair.
My Aunt Lucy tied it up for my wedding and bound the long strands up into a traditional bun called a tsiiyéél which is wrapped in white sheep’s wool spun into yarn. This is how I wore my hair to my wedding that night in a hogan (an eight-sided traditional Navajo dwelling). I remember walking in: a fire lit in the middle bathed my relatives’s faces and my husband’s relatives’ in a golden glow as they knelt on the dirt floor and smiled at us. I wore a traditional woven dress and my husband wore his traditional Mohawk regalia. His people are from the Eastern woodlands of New York state and his garb, including a guhsto:wa (feather headdress), were strange and foreign to my Navajo family’s eyes. The walls were adorned with the Navajo rugs my grandmother wove in her traditional Storm pattern.
It was as we say in Navajo, nizhóní, beautiful. And I believe the hair cannot be viewed as separate from all of that. The care we give it, the washing, the adornment, the way our relatives dress— it represents that we are a part of our people, that we are Diné, Navajo.
Working with our hands, we human beings create a beauty—manifestations of ideas that spring from our imaginations—that is basic to our humanity. The logs that made up the hogan that my family built for our wedding were beautiful in their rough-hewn state. The wood was warm and golden and made a spiral pattern in the roof above our heads. It hid the night sky from view (Navajo weddings are held at night). That same night sky where, as a child of suburbia, I first saw the Milky Way spread across the sky and realized in shock that the night sky was full, not empty. It fundamentally changed the way I viewed the world. In that brightly lit mess of stars marching across the night sky, I understood that the natural world is not filled with darkness, but simply with things I cannot see, and that the world around me possesses infinite possibility.