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Referee's Call On Navajo Hair Bun Prompts Outcry

Tsiiyeel
Courtesy of Nikki Cooley
Colleen Cooley and her niece Ella Ruth Ahrens wear their hair in a traditional Navajo tsiiyéél.

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Referee's Call On Navajo Hair Bun Prompts Outcry

Referee's Call On Navajo Hair Bun Prompts Outcry

Courtesy of Nikki Cooley

Colleen Cooley and her niece Ella Ruth Ahrens wear their hair in a traditional Navajo tsiiyéél.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association is looking at sensitivity training after an incident this week in Flagstaff, where a referee told a high school girls basketball team of mostly Navajos to take their hair down.

The tsiiyéél, as it’s called, is a traditional Navajo bun tied with yarn. The referee worried the four inches of dangling yarn would be dangerous.

The Navajo believe the hair contains their thoughts and memories, and when they pull it back that knowledge is behind them in a way that protects them.

“It made me sick to my stomach,” said Nikki Cooley, a member of the Navajo Nation. “[It] 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 practice or partake in any of their native ceremonies.”

The Navajo Nation president said in response to the incident: “Our Navajo athletes should never be punished for expressing pride in their culture or who they are.”

The Arizona Interscholastic Association apologized but said the referee did follow the rulebook.

Laurel Morales was a Fronteras Desk reporter in Flagstaff from 2011 to 2020.