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School administrators in Kansas this September violated an eight-year old Native American boy’s cultural and religious freedoms when they required him to cut his long hair to conform to school policy, according to the Kansas American Civil Liberties Union Foundation (ACLU).

The boy, a member of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma, had been growing his hair for more than a year after seeing tribal men wear their hair long at the Nation’s annual gathering of the Little Turtles, according to the letter the ACLU sent Girard School District administrators on November 17. The boy was attending Haderlein Elementary School in Girard, Kansas.

The boy’s mother learned of the school’s “Boy’s hair length” policy in August 2023, and visited the school the following month to request an exemption for her son “because of his Native American heritage and spiritual beliefs,” according to the ACLU. The school’s policy forbids boys, but not girls, from wearing their hair long. 

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“Hair is not to touch the collar of a crew neck t-shirt, cover the eyebrows, or extend below the earlobes. Ponytails, rat tails, or any other style that would circumvent the policy are not permitted,” the policy reads. She was told there were no exemptions.

On September 23, 2023, Haderlein Elementary School Assistant Principal Joni Benso emailed the student's mother, informing her that if her child’s hair was not cut by the following Monday, “he will be sent home.”  

Neither Benso nor the school’s Principal, Tina Daniel, responded to Native News Online’s request for comment.

“Ultimately,” the letter reads, “to ensure that the student would be able to continue attending school, rather than being ‘sent home’ or facing other punishment, he was forced to cut his hair over the weekend of September 22, 2023.”

The Wyandotte Nation said in a statement to Native News Online that, while not directly involved, the nation is aware of the incident, and it harkens back to decades of cultural oppression against Indigenous peoples.

“This oppression has taken many forms including, but not limited to, the forced cutting of Native American men and boys’ hair in order to impose conformity with dominant white culture and to stifle long-held religious and traditional Native American practices and beliefs,” the Nation’s response, emailed from Chief Billy Friend, reads. “The apex of this oppressive tactic can be found during the tragic Indian boarding school era, when Native children were taken from their homes and communities, relocated to strange and distant boarding schools, and forcibly assimilated through, among other means, the cutting short of boys’ hair.”

Chief Friend added that long hair is a cultural tradition in his nation that hasn’t been practiced for the past several decades, “but many in our current generation have [begun] to practice once again.”

The ACLU asserted that Haderlein Elementary School’s policy and refusal to accommodate the student’s religious and cultural practices violates the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Girard Schools Superintendent Todd Ferguson responded to an email from Native News Online on Tuesday stating that: “Nothing matters more to the USD 248 district and staff than creating a safe, respectful and caring school for every student.”

Ferguson said he was unable to comment on individual students due to confidentiality, but that the Board of Education will review and consider updates to the dress code policy on December 14.

The Wyandotte Nation urged the Girard Schools Unified School District 248 in their statement to reconsider its policy governing boys’ hair length “in light of the unique history involving Native American children.”

“This is a culturally sensitive issue that brings to light historical traumas for many Tribal Nations, beyond our own,” the nation wrote. 

In March 2022, a Native American student in the first-grade had his long hair forcibly cut off by two other students while attending school at Del City Elementary in Oklahoma, prompting an internal investigation. Last week, the UC Health Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, on Friday finally admitted that a hospital staff member cut the hair of 65-year-old Lakota elder Arthur Janis, without his or his family’s permission. On November 18, Native News Online’s publisher Levi Rickert wrote a column about the sacredness of hair to Native Americans.

“We hope that a respectful, culturally informed discourse between the family and the school representatives will ultimately lead to a workable resolution.”

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.