Don’t Touch My Hair, You Don’t Know Where It’s Been

Dawn Vickerstaff
4 min readMar 3, 2023

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Not me or my hair but close enough

I have very long hair. It’s waist-length or better in some scraggly places. No split ends though. But it’s not straight across the bottom like ‘well-groomed’ hair. It’s its own entity and I like it that way.

“Wouldn’t you like to let me trim it?”

“No.”

“Just a little, it looks a bit ragged.”

“No.”

“I don’t know why on earth you want to have such long, out-of-control, ragged, scraggly hair. It is out of place on your old head.”

No, it isn’t and no you don’t know why I have such long hair. But if you do want to know, well, then ask me. Or let me tell you.

My grandmother died when she was ninety. Toward the end of her life, she refused to have her hair cut. She wore it instead in a long braid down the middle of her back. My mother berated her and told her it looked like a rat’s tail. A hairy rat’s tail. Grandmother didn’t care. She said, “My grandmother had a long braid and this,” holding up her ‘ratty’ braid, “is to honor her and all my other Grandmothers.”

My mother sneered a bit. She left it alone but my mother never grew her hair. She didn’t get the ‘honor your Grandmothers’ thing. I did but I didn’t live it until now.

When I was younger, I grew my hair to just beyond my shoulder blades, cut it off, and then grew it again. I never respected my hair. I just played with it, dyed it, chopped it off, let it get snarled, permed it and then finally grew it this long, like my Grandmother’s.

At first, growing this long hair didn’t feel like an act of respect. It felt instead like a fairly useless act of rebellion.

Before I grew it long I got my hair cut very short. My hairdresser refused to shave my head like I wanted. She cited Brittany Spears to question my sanity in letting it all go. But I wanted a clean start and a clean head and I wanted all the dye gone. I wanted to do this head-shaving act for a very, very long time. It felt like renewal.

Not me either

I’d done something similar when I divorced my first husband. My hair was very long then and still thick. Instead of washing that man right out of my hair, I cut him off entirely. It felt good.

Now though, I was growing my hair in a kind of useless defiance. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t cut my hair until COVID was over. It’s still not over and I’m still not cutting my hair.

But something else was at the back of my mind.

Grandmother’s grandmother Marie was Metis. Marie’s mother, Marguerite, was Ojibwe. Marguerite along with many other children had their hair cut forcibly when they were taken away from their families and shoved into Indian Schools. Eventually, Marguerite was married to a French Canadian so all their children, including Marie, became Metis and many of them also ended up in Indian Schools, shorn of hair and any connection to their mother’s ancestry. It depended on what they looked like. It was that arbitrary.

Eventually, Marie married Milton who was of ‘Old New England’ stock, read white. They had Little Marguerite, my Grandmother’s mother. Little Marguerite had the bluest eyes like her father. At least half of the other fourteen children looked more like their mother. They went to Indian schools to prevent them from ever connecting with their ancestry.

My grandmother loved her grandmother but she was discouraged from spending too much time with her because she was a ‘half-breed’. Grandmother told me that she and her mother, who had also married a white man, would often lie and say that her grandmother was ‘French’ to fend off the questions of the townspeople. It didn’t help anyone in the early 20th century to admit to any other ancestry. It was a matter of safety and acceptance to be thought of as ‘white’. That’s the ugly reality of ‘passing’.

So, as the end of Grandmother’s life got closer and closer, the ragged braid got longer and longer and Grandmother began to remember some long-forgotten songs, long hidden tales and she told me as much as she could. ‘Long hair ties you to Mother Earth, like the long grass. It represents power and strength for both men and women,’ she said. ‘Remember a single strand breaks easily but together it is unbreakable’.

But grandmother was alone when she died. All her connections, severed. She still had her braid, and now, I do too. I’m working on being better with this hair because it is sacred and needs to be respected. I need it to be a strong rope to tie me closely to my Grandmothers. So, that’s why I have this hair.

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