There are about a hundred people in San Quentin state prison who identify as Native American. One of those people is Eldridge Leigh Yazzie. He's Navajo and has been incarcerated for 27 years. Native Americans like Yazzie have the right to practice their spirituality in prison. But sometimes the rules of prison conflict with their spiritual practices.
Like many Navajo people, Eldridge Leigh Yazzie wears his hair long, either in a braided ponytail or in two braids when he’s performing traditional dances.
Yazzie has worn his hair this way for the entirety of his life. He was born on a reservation, but moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was three years old. There, he was one of the few Native American kids in his school.
“Kids didn't really know the culture that I was from,” Yazzie explains. “So you know we were always ridiculed about having our hair long, you know, calling us a girl.”
As Yazzie got older, he got involved with a gang, and eventually came to prison in 1992. A few years after Yazzie was incarcerated, a prisoner down in San Diego cut his hair and was able to escape. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) issued a new rule: prisoners could no longer grow their hair more than three inches long, and had to be completely clean-shaven.
“To punish the whole population because of one person, you know, I felt that was wrong,” Yazzie says. “I thought it was absurd because they didn't even have the consideration of our beliefs.”
Cutting his hair would betray Yazzie’s cultural and spiritual practices. So, he and other Native Americans in prison decided that they had to take a stand.
“I mean, that's easy for you to say that me having short hair that, you know, you're making me not less than a man, but you're not Native American,” Yazzie explains. “Put it like this, you'd feel naked. I would feel naked myself.”
Yazzie remembers that his aunts and uncles were forced to cut their hair when they were growing up.
Hector Herridia, the Native American spiritual adviser at San Quentin, explains that hair is considered an extension of a person's spirit.
“When we go to our heaven, we go with our hair on. Our hair are just roots of our nerves. We just keep it growing.”
Herridia explains, “if there's a death in our family, some tribes will cut it off or you get in trouble or something they'll cut your hair off. It is another symbol of our identity, who we are as men.”
Native Americans were not the only ones who protested the new ruling from the CDCR. Some Rastafarians refused to cut their long dreadlocks, and incarcerated Muslim men who wore long beards refused to shave. CDCR punished protesters by adding time to their sentences.
“You know it was difficult but that's just giving us more strength,” Yazzie remembers. “You know, I'm not trying to be an a-hole or anything, but you know I want them to understand what I went through and being proud of my heritage.”
Yazzie refused to cut his hair for eight years. Then, in 2006, a court decision found CDCR’s grooming rule unconstitutional.
Then, in 2013, Yazzie decided it was time to cut his hair off on his own terms. His Aunt was diagnosed with cancer and started undergoing chemotherapy.
“When she got this disease it started making me think she's going through radiation and she ain't got no hair,” Yazzie explains. “So I wanted to be a part of what she's going through, even though I'm not there physically to let her know that I'm with you on this fight.”
Yazzie cut his hair during a public spiritual ceremony at San Quentin's annual Breast Cancer Awareness Walk.
Yazzie came on stage. Two members of the Native American Community at San Quentin were there to cut his hair.
“Robin and Mike came on stage and blessed it, purified it with sage and cedar, and Robin was singing the whole time,” Yazzie says. “We cut it off to the ponytail, and then I told Mike to go ahead and shave it all the way off. It was a life change because I can't recall the last time I had even my hair short except for when I was a baby.”
Yazzie donated his three-foot-long ponytail to a group that makes wigs for cancer survivors.
Today, six years after Yazzie's haircutting ceremony his hair is long again; it falls all the way down his back.