Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Backlash After Referee Bans Traditional Navajo Hairstyle


In Arizona, hair is figuring into high school basketball. Flagstaff's Lady Eagles wore their hair in traditional Navajo buns at a recent game. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ tells us what happened.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: It was all a part of Native American Heritage Night, which began with the "National Anthem" sung in Navajo.


UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Singing in Navajo).

MORALES: Then, mothers, aunts and grandmothers helped the entire team of mostly Native Americans put their hair up in a tsiyeel, as it's called, a traditional Navajo bun tied with yarn. The Lady Eagles warmed up. But then a referee told them they couldn't play because he believed the buns broke regulation. He said the few inches of yarn could whip the girls in the eye or catch their hands. Co-captain Shayleen Toehe explained to the official they wore them in honor of their culture. The girls took out their buns anyway.

SHAYLEEN TOEHE: It was embarrassing because we had to take it off in front of our parents, our grandparents.

MORALES: Soon, many Navajos took to social media to express their anger. Nikki Cooley was one of those people.

NIKKI COOLEY: Brought back stories of many native people who have said when they were in boarding schools that they could not have their hair long. They could not speak their language. And they could not partake in any of their ceremonies.

PRES RUSSELL BEGAYE: We are saying, never again.

MORALES: That's Navajo President Russell Begaye.

BEGAYE: We will stand our ground. We will defend our culture, who we are as a nation 'cause we are proud.

MORALES: In response, the Arizona Interscholastic Association has since apologized and says the official made an error. The organization says it plans to improve its cultural sensitivity training.

A few days after the uproar, the Lady Eagles prepared to face off against their cross-town rivals. Pauline Butler came to watch her niece play and to do hair. Equipped with a brush and yarn, Butler set up a folding chair next to the concessions stand.

PAULINE BUTLER: What we're doing is we're gathering it. And we're tying it into a bun. So it's not scattered anymore. And they're going to be focused.

MORALES: Butler told the girls their hair represents their thoughts, their knowledge and their memories. And it wasn't just the Lady Eagles who wore them. Around the packed stadium, the buns were everywhere, Navajo women and men, young and old.


MORALES: Even Maya Tijeri on the other team sported a bun.

MAYA TIJERI: In the end, we're all Flagstaff kids. We're all playing the same game. And we just wanted to show, like, who we are, where we come from - 'cause this is our home.

MORALES: Now Native Americans across the country have taken to social media, posting pictures of themselves wearing the tsiyeel to show their support for the Lady Eagles. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.