Photo courtesy Maura Armus
Members of the Flagstaff High School's Lady Eagles basketball team were told to remove their traditional tsiiyééł in order to continue playing.

Blackhorse: Diné Tsiiyééł [Hair Bun] Is Power

Amanda Blackhorse

For those who don’t know, the traditional Diné [Navajo] hair bun – the tsiiyééł is as essential to the Diné as say, tobacco or eagle feathers to all Native people. Like so many other Indigenous tribes and communities, our hair is a representation of not only our identity but also our intellect and our way of life.

The tsiiyééł is worn by men and women, there is meaning behind it’s creation and the way it sits on a person head. Each strand, the yarn that is used, and the way in which it is wrapped has much purpose. It is sacred to the Diné, it is more than a tradition – it’s a form or prayer and a spiritual practice.

On February 2, a young women’s basketball team, the Lady Eagles at Flagstaff High School in a border town to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, chose to wear the tsiiyééł during a game to celebrate Native American day at their school. The majority of the school's student body is non-Native American.

Not only were the young Diné women wearing this but also several non-Native young women wore the tsiiyééł to show their support of their Diné teammates.

Prior to the game commencing, a referee told the players they needed to take down their tsiiyééł in order to play because it violated the Arizona Interscholastic Association rulebook regarding “hair control devices.” The young women took their hair down, played the game and won.

It wasn’t long before the public got wind of this. Several attendees and parents posted on their Facebook pages and it went viral. People were outraged by this because it appeared to be an attack on Diné culture, spirituality and life ways because tying your hair in a traditional Diné bun can be as common as tying your hair in a ponytail before the game. Why was the tsiiyééł any different than large ponytails?

There was an outpouring of support from other high school teams who wore the tsiiyééł during their games. Some asked permission and some didn’t. Folks on social media showed support by wearing their tsiiyééłs. The next day Navajo President Russell Begay and Vice President Jonathan Nez showed their support through a press release and even attended a game. Miss Navajo also showed her support by attending as well.

Days later the AIA apologized to the Lady Eagles. Their press release stated, “According to Gary Whelchel, AIA State Commissioner of Officials, the official acted within his authority and by rulebook. It is unfortunate that we didn’t know prior to the game the plans for this celebration. The official did not mean any insult to the girls or Navajo Nation and on behalf of the AIA, we apologize for any upset the situation may have caused.”

They apologized and many have accepted that apology – but many begged the question, “Why must the players and teams ask for permission?” Lady Eagles Booster Club Spokesperson Pauline Butler [Diné] from Flagstaff and Luepp, Arizona, also raised this question. She asked, “Why do we have to ask for permission to show our culture and who we are”?

On one hand, AIA apologized for “any upset” they may’ve caused but on the other hand they expressed their discontent of not being informed of “the plans of the celebration.” Their press release suggests the young women are allowed to wear their buns but must they first ask permission?

To further clarify this, I emailed AIA today and got an immediate reply from AIA State Commissioner of Officials, Gary Whelchel. He stated, “The items worn by the Flagstaff girl’s basketball team fall under the rulebook category of “hair control devices” and are legal. They would be illegal to wear in a game only if they presented a safety issue. These did not. No permission is necessary to wear them.”

Glad we cleared that up. What we don’t want is the sentiment that yet again, Diné folks or Indigenous folks must ask the state or the governing bodies to be who they are and how they can express themselves. Indigenous people have experienced this time and time again, especially in an educational setting. Whether it be freedom to wear your hair long, freedom to wear an eagle feather at your graduation or the freedom to wear a traditional Diné hair bun, it seems that our expression and pride in being who we are is tolerated but at some point it becomes a distraction and a rulebook or policy is cited to stop it.

I am happy this issue has been resolved and I hope it doesn’t happen again. I am looking forward to more tsiiyééłs on the court or in the field. I am extremely proud of the young women and the parents who’ve expressed their pride in being Diné. Butler shared with me the words of co-captain of the Lady Eagles, Kelsy Williams, “I can’t believe what we started!” Hence, the Tsiiyééł Movement.

Amanda Blackhorse, Diné, is a mother and activist. She and four other plaintiffs won a case against the Washington football team that stripped it of six of its seven trademarks. Follow her on Twitter @blackhorse_a. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Laura Gonzalez
Submitted by Laura Gonzalez on
To a non-Diné person, it looks like the girls have team colored ribbons/ties in their hair. Since when is that illegal? I'm so sick of these stories of white people saying that hair styles like this, or mohawks, or afro-puffs aren't allowed. WTF? Who made them God and arbiter of everything allowed and not allowed? And most of the time it only shows their complete ignorance of the background or hair (in the case of African American hair). I'm assuming the girls tried to explain the situation to the ref, but he ignored them. Ugh.

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
THis is nothing new. A great many basketball teams wore the tsiiyeel before and during basketball games in the 70s and 80s. The young women participated, played, and went home. The only difference is social media wasn't around nor was sensationalism for the sake of "telling" on people and/or spreading half-truths and rumor.

Laura Gonzalez
Submitted by Laura Gonzalez on
Parents Demand School Let Their Kids Wear African Head Wraps A North Carolina school has come under fire for failing to have a culturally inclusive dress code. *sigh*

onedman's picture
Submitted by onedman on
This happened in Flagstaff? How long has Flagstaff been next door to the Tribe? I too am glad it's cleared up but this well heal slowly I think, just as all wounds do. We must all try to teach inclusion. From Phx.