The first few months of school with a new class and new teacher can be hard for any child, but for one Cree family with four boys who wear their long hair in braids to honour their heritage, unwanted attention and questions are inevitable.
Azure, their mother, said they are fairly used to this at the start of a school year, and her boys are resilient. Black Press Media has honoured the family’s request to not publish their last name to protect their identity.
She became more than a little concerned, however, when her five-year-old, Adam, came home from school in south Edmonton with his hair undone – for the second time that year. He was upset and crying.
Azure and three of the four boys, including Adam, are members of Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis.
She braids her son’s hair tightly each morning. The elastics are tight and shouldn’t come out on their own. That day was picture day at school, so she’d even added extra hairspray.
Adam said the elastic had been pulled out by another child at school.
“In the moment, when it happens … you’re hurt, you’re frustrated,” said Azure. Children shouldn’t think it’s okay to touch his hair, she added, never mind pulling out his braid.
She made an eloquent post to a community Facebook page in Ponoka about how kids call her son a girl and pull out his braids. But he is “a boy with a braid” and he is proud of them, she said.
“There is no reason why he should come home ashamed of his hair; but today he did. It hurts,” she wrote. “Every day we will push through this and every day he will walk through those doors at school with pride because he is a boy with a braid.”
She said she spoke out not to point fingers, but to start a discussion. She has since received dozens of messages, from people as close as neighbouring communities and as and far as Oklahoma, Kansas and Hawaii, who want to share their own painful experiences and thank her for posting.
“It’s powerful, very powerful.”
One story was particularly difficult to hear, she said. A young adult in their 20s involved in sports asked their mother to cut their hair, deciding they couldn’t take the taunting any longer.
“That was a really tough story to hear. I can’t imagine having to do that.”
Another reason her boys keep their hair long is to honour what she and her mother endured at residential schools.
She said it isn’t about the past, though.
“We want to renew relationships with everyone and move forward,” she said. “This incident – it is starting a conversation. That is reconciliation for us.”
School officials were quick to address the issue when she contacted them, she added.
In a statement to Black Press Media, the Edmonton Public School Board said staff want to ensure schools are safe places where students are valued and treated with respect.
“Schools are expected to provide opportunities for all students to become knowledgeable about Indigenous values and culture and to demonstrate respect and recognition of First Nations, Métis and Inuit values and cultures,” the statement said.