“Their sacred and ancestral core religious traditions are at stake”
The Supreme Court will not hear an appeal of a lower court’s decision to force Native American inmates to cut their hair while in Alabama prisons. Native inmates have argued that keeping their hair long is part of their spiritual traditions. Although many other prison systems allow inmates to follow the follow the grooming practices of their religion, the 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Alabama’s system could make its own assessment on the benefits and risks.
In August 2015, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Alabama’s prison policy.
Inmates had told the court that their long hair has deep religious significance, and they wanted to keep their hair unshorn because of their beliefs.
‘Their sacred and ancestral core religious traditions are at stake,’ the inmates’ attorney, Mark Sabel of Montgomery, previously told AP.
The department had argued that long hair was a hygiene risk and could be used to conceal weapons and contraband.
Unfortunately, denying the Native community the right to grow long hair is not a new tactic. This was one of the first actions taken across the country when Natives were being forcibly assimilated. Native children were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools, where they were given “American” names, forced to cut their hair short, and forbidden from speaking their own language (read more on the boarding schools here). The treatment varied from nation to nation and was worse for some communities than others, but without a doubt, the trend was towards mental, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as outright denial of connection to their own families and history as a powerful people.
This action of cutting their hair was about breaking them down as a people and erasing the identities of the Native communities. In 1902, William Atkinson Jones, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, sent a letter to superintendents of all federal reservations and agencies ordering them to cut the hair of all Natives.
Jones wrote that long hair was not “in keeping with the advancement they [were] making, or [would] be expected to make in civilization.” He went on to lament that Natives who returned to “home” on the reservation “adopt[ed] all the old habits and customs which his education in our industrial schools has tried to eradicate.” The letter, known as “the haircut order,” also suggested that the officials could withhold food to force compliance to the order.
The saddest part of this story is that it involves two forms of oppression used by the State: a corrupt prison-industrial complex and suppression — or outright destruction — of the customs of the oppressed. The mistreatment of Native prisoners is also only one of many situations where indigenous populations are abused and/or neglected. Activist Post recently reported on an action where 150 activists marched from Independence Bridge on the Texas-Mexico border to the front of the Dos Republicas coal mine to protest the theft and destruction of Native lands and sacred sites.
The attacks on Native communities extend well beyond the borders of the United States. Despite the constant attacks on native traditions, lands, and life itself, many communities are actively resisting colonization. Whether it’s indigenous women in Argentina resisting fracking, or the Sápara people willing to die to defend the Ecuadorian rainforest, native peoples are not going quietly. They are setting a powerful example for the rest of the world. They are showing us what communities may have to do when pushed to the breaking point.
Only by educating ourselves on the crimes against all peoples can we form alliances of empowered individuals, leading empowered communities in an active resistance to the colonization of our minds and physical worlds. We can — and must — create a more free, just, and moral world.
Derrick is available for interviews.
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