Hair styles, heritage in culture clash

March 05, 1996|By Tim Giago

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- We all know the story of a complaint voiced about how bad the youth of today have become and then discovering the remark was made 2,000 years ago. Lends credence to the statement, ''The more things change, the more they stay the same.''

Perhaps some cultures are strong enough to overcome the recklessness of their youth, but when a culture is surrounded by a dominant society with many different values, how long can it withstand the corruption to which it is subjected?

I don't mean corruption in the literal sense, but corruption because it flies in the face of traditions that are centuries old, traditions that preceded the invasion of a new culture on this continent by thousands of years.

The powerful differences between the cultures then cause the fabric of the weaker to tear, allowing the dominant culture to penetrate the other.

Without doubt, Over the past 2,000 years, many cultures have come and gone. Many of them probably fell by the wayside because of those rebellious youth who lived for their generation alone.

American Indians, as a group, have always looked to their youth as their future. Children were looked upon as sacred beings. The Lakota (Sioux) word for child is wakanyeja, which translates to mean ''the child is also holy.''

In many tribes the hair was the keeper of the spirit. Men, women and children wore it long, sometimes loose and free, and at other times in braids wrapped in fur, beadwork or leather thongs.

Other tribes styled it in such a way as to identify their nation. Special ceremonies required special wraps or ties. The smoke of the burning sage was often brushed through the hair as TC religious gesture.

Last winter I went to an Indian basketball tournament. The young men on some of the teams had shaved their heads.

One elderly Lakota man took me aside and said he did not like this. I reminded him of how this used to be punishment for Indian children who had broken the rules at the Indian mission schools. That child was often stigmatized by having his hair cropped to the scalp.

The very first indignity heaped upon an Indian child when brought to a government or parochial boarding school was to have one's hair shorn. This was the beginning of institutionalizing.

Troubling questions

Is it now all right for the young Indian men of today to shave their heads for the sake of a sporting event, thereby forsaking their own culture and traditions in the interim? Are traditions and culture inconsequential in contemporary America?

I do not ask this to embarrass these young athletes, but because I am seeking an answer.

Two hundred years ago it was unheard of for a young Indian woman to have a child out of wedlock. It was also unheard of for a young man to father a child out of wedlock.

This was a very powerful taboo, as were incest and rape. The cohesion and stability of the village took precedence over all else. To violate these beliefs often meant banishment from the tribe, a sure death sentence back then.

It was, to put it simply, the only way a tribe or village could survive. If one violated these cultural beliefs, one disrupted the very life of the village.

This is no longer the case. I have seen so many young lives disrupted by unwanted pregnancies. The incidence of single mothers is almost epidemic on some Indian reservations. The social problems caused by this chaos has also grown to epidemic proportions.

Some Indian tribes find themselves fighting all the social ills to be found in large cities. These include drugs, alcohol, venereal diseases, AIDs, child abuse, spousal abuse, rape, incest and murder.

It goes against everything that is sacred in being Indian. It goes against everything that had, for centuries, set the Indian culture apart from the European.

So many times I have seen a promising young lady end the summer following her high school graduation with a college scholarship in one hand and a positive pregnancy test in the other. Some persevere despite this, but most just stop their education on the spot.

Single-parent homes, a thing totally unheard of 200 years ago, are commonplace on most Indian reservations today.

There were no widows or orphans in a Lakota Indian village. If the woman who lost a husband had a brother-in-law, she simply became his wife, and he became the father of her children. No one in the village thought this to be wrong. It was a part of the culture.

When a Catholic priest told Sitting Bull he was sinful to have more than one wife, Sitting Bull said, ''You tell which one to leave.''

That's why I asked the question about whether the dominant culture has so severely penetrated the weaker culture that it has become a microcosm of the stronger. Many see these terrible things happening, and many strong women are stepping forward in an effort to stop it from destroying the Indians as a people.

The Indian people have withstood every effort, thus far, to assimilate, acculturate and eliminate them from the face of this continent.

Perhaps the impact of modern movies, television (MTV) and the new strains of incurable diseases spreading across the reservations will be able to do what no army could do.

Tim Giago is editor-in-chief and publisher of Indian Country Today, a national weekly.

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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