By Alastair Lee Bitsóí, he/him/she/her
I’ve always wanted to grow my hair longer than a buzz cut, comb over, or fauxhawk. These hairstyles are generally what cis-hetero men wear. Often these looks trend across Instagram, or whatever look is in season as led by the fashion industry. As an Indigenous Diné queer person, I wore these cuts in an effort to assimilate—but it only hid my own beauty and sexuality. Indigenous male and queer beauty, on the contrary, generally allows for longer hair. It is the opposite of western notions of male beauty, always has been. And will be for time immemorial. Polling some friends, they initially told me how longer hair would make me look like a hippie, that I would look more feminine—they even wondered if I was coming out as a trans woman.
But, those assumptions were wrong. I grew my hair to become grounded and develop a closer connection to Mother Earth, Father Sky, and divine nature. Through Diné healing ceremonies, maintaining mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional health are key themes to leading a balanced life of Hozho, the Diné value of living in balance with nature. This also includes the health and care for longer hair.
This was not always the case in my journey. It has taken much internal work. Evolving in this way, while doing the best to ignore the trends, has led to a more intentional life than ever. Just like Adele, who recently dedicated her latest album, 30, to 30- and 40-year-olds who are doing therapy, I am doing the self-work. I am now pickier with where my energy is spent, including with whom. In fact, I am more JOMO, joy of missing out, now, than FOMO. Maybe everyone else is too, due in part to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our lives have since been uprooted and we have been challenged to think about how to live for the future of humans and our non-human relatives, an understanding that finally makes sense with a growing mane. We gotta slow our roll and, sometimes, just be.
The association of longer hair with my evolution to a more accountable and transparent Indigenous Diné Queer being has made me stronger, louder, and like water meandering where it is meant to flow. Or, as my matrilineal clan name means, Tó’ahani, Near The Water People. Reclaiming my hair has strengthened me to heal from historical traumas associated with my own story that had been silenced for years. I think that I am living a more loving and intentional life that has inspired healthier relationships with family, siblings, relatives, and the ongoing advocacy and land protection of current and ancestral Indigenous lands. This includes collective farm work at Near The Water Farms with Indigenous seeds to improve health outcomes among my community. Through my hair, my mind is expanding to help make this world a safer place.
I’ve grown my hair long enough to tie into a Diné bun, or tsiiyeel, which is tied with sheep wool or buckskin. For most men, a tsiiyeel is lower and tied differently than our women, who wear theirs higher on their heads. Some of my queer relatives wear both styles. When I tie my hair, I feel powerful, connected, and confident, and ready to tackle the world with solutions for better health and environmental health outcomes across our Indigenous communities. When washing hair in and after ceremony, it is the most important ritual of reverence, often washed and cleansed with yucca roots to make for cleaner grounding with nature. It is a simple yet important act of healing and protection.
Recently, I trimmed my hair from shoulder blade length to just above the shoulders because of split ends and to just promote healthier growth. I wanna say Kourtney Kardashian’s latest cut may have influenced the change, but it was actually this beautiful “Navajo Boy” in the historical archives who had the perfect length before his hair was cut to assimilate to male military standards under the Indigenous boarding school system of the early 1900s. He is who I want to pay homage to—his look, earrings, beads, shirt, and his headband. He is also why I got a tintype by photographer Joseph Kayne to remake his look. It is power, beauty, and hozho, all before, I imagine, he grieves the hair he lost through attempted genocide.
I am understanding that how my ancestors, Indigenous children from across what is now the U.S. and Diné Bikéyah, had their hair cut against their own wills is violent oppression. Their plight is the inspiration—and my own act of resistance—to grow mine out. My hair, so long as I can grow it in a fashionable way, is in honor of them. When working on the legacies of Indigenous boarding school stories, this “Navajo Boy” always circulates on a Google search. When I think of our ancestors who attended boarding schools, I think of him and many others who were already beautiful as Creator and our Holy People, deities in Diné culture, had made them to be. Dark brown and beautiful.
My vision to grow my hair longer is also in part fashionably supported by my barber and cosmetologist, Karl Kumpin, of Millcreek, Utah. I love how he cuts hair. Karl used to cut my hair when it was shorter. We have collaborated on many different looks over the last three years, including cuts to wear a fedora or beret. And he’s always been culturally sensitive to my hairdressing needs, such as sweeping up my hair so I can take it home to burn with a fire. When I told him that I wanted to change up my look by growing my hair long, Karl made it happen with his techniques. Eventually, it took about two years to grow out to where I eventually was able to tie it into a tsiiyeel. Basically, the only reason I grew my hair: wear a tsiiyeel, just like my Diné ancestors.
I’ve always had good hair, thanks majorly to my parents. I inherited my mom’s black raven locks, and continue to do my best to learn hair teachings around my culture. Such as the best time of day to brush it or tie it up. I’ve been told to always tie up my hair, though I enjoy equally wearing it down. The teachings around hair vary regionally across Dinétah. I always remember the teaching of healers telling me to offer prayers to Mother Earth and Father Sky from the bottom of my feet to the longest tip of my hair. When I think of this ritual, I think of our human relationship to the natural elements and our reciprocal values of not to exploit them for mere profit.
Through growing my hair, I’m feeling more beautiful in my own skin, but also inner-channeling the energy of my ancestors. They brought me into this world through prayers, songs, and strong bloodlines to protect the universe for all. And this growth comes at no crisper time of better understanding my last name, Bitsóí, which is loosely translated as Grandchild Of the Universe in Diné culture. Or, even my given Scottish masculine name, Alastair, which means Protector of Mankind. Through my hair, I feel sure and stable to live according to my given names. In the process, I am proud to be made of three of four original Diné clans that Changing Woman created as the intellectual designer of the Diné universe. After all, I am Nihooka Diyin Diné’e (Holy Earth Surface People). We all are, and we must live regeneratively for the future, just like our hair grows and renews. Ahéhee.
Written by Alastair Lee Bitsóí for Youth To The People. Alastair Lee Bitsóí (Diné) is from the Navajo Nation community of Naschitti, below the Ch'ooshgai Mountains on the New Mexico–Arizona state line. He has been an award-winning news reporter for the Navajo Times and communications director for the Indigenous-led land conservation nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah. His consulting business, Near the Water Communications and Media Group, trains media, nonprofits, businesses, and governments in cultural sensitivity. Alastair is co-editor with Brooke Larsen of the Torrey House Press anthology New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, and Climate Crisis. Along with being a 2021 Public Voices Fellow on the Climate Crisis with the Op-Ed Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, he has a master’s degree in public health from New York University College of Global Public Health and is an alumnus of Gonzaga University. He is a journalist who writes about environmental and public health topics.