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Indigenous author explores the power of hair for Native Americans in children's book


Some of the most contentious discussions in any family can be about hair. Author Carole Lindstrom knows that very well. As a kid, a disagreement with her mother over the length of her hair opened a door to learning about her Native American ancestry. She wrote a children's book called "My Powerful Hair." NPR's Elizabeth Blair talked with her.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: When Carole Lindstrom was a little girl growing up in Bellevue, Neb., she really wanted long hair.

CAROLE LINDSTROM: I used to use a blanket I had as a young baby, and I'd put it on my hair and pretend I had long hair - you know? - swing it around. But...

BLAIR: But her mother wouldn't let her.

LINDSTROM: I didn't get it. I didn't understand it. You know, every time it got a little bit long, she'd say, we have to cut it. It's too wild.

BLAIR: One clue that helped her get it was a black-and-white photograph that sat on top of the TV set. It was a picture of her grandmother and two great aunts.

LINDSTROM: And they were wearing, you know, just these white smocks. And their hair was just really chopped short, and they had bangs. It just didn't look right, you know? And I remember asking my mom about that picture. What was Grandma doing? And my mom didn't really know much about it other than to say, well, that was when Grandma and your great aunts were sent to boarding school - Indian boarding school.

BLAIR: At Indian boarding schools, children were subjected to all kinds of indignities. Lindstrom's grandmother and great aunts attended in the early 1900s. They were forbidden to speak their language and forced to cut their hair. Lindstrom is an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. As an adult, she set out to find out more about her culture.

LINDSTROM: The hair is such a big part of who we are and our identity.

TALON JEROME: (Reading) Mom never had long hair. She was told hers was too wild.

BLAIR: Our reader introduced himself in his Native language, Ojibwe.

TALON: (Speaking Ojibwe). My name is Talon. I'm from the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

BLAIR: In "My Powerful Hair," a little girl relates the events of her life with the length of her hair.

TALON: (Reading) When my baby brother was born, my hair touched my shoulders. The gift of welcoming him into the world is woven into my hair.

BLAIR: Ten-year-old Talon Jerome says most of the boys at his school have short hair, but he prefers to keep his long.

TALON: Our hair is, like, the source of our strength and power and, like, memories and stuff like that.

BLAIR: Talon learned about what happened at boarding schools from his mother, Cherona Jerome, a teacher at Turtle Mountain Elementary. She thinks "My Powerful Hair" will help her students.

CHERONA JEROME: 'Cause I really believe it's important for students to know why their hair is long. The other students who are maybe not as involved with their culture, they're learning from us. We are the generation that's teaching them our culture again.

BLAIR: Carole Lindstrom says there was a time when publishers wouldn't even look at her stories about Native culture. And then in 2014, We Need Diverse Books came about. The campaign pushed for greater diversity in publishing.

LINDSTROM: And when that happened, the world suddenly went click.

BLAIR: A publisher picked up her book "We Are Water Protectors." It became a bestseller. Lindstrom says she almost never saw Native Americans in books she read as a little girl. Those she did see were depicted as savages. She says "My Powerful Hair" is her gift to kids who look like her.

LINDSTROM: I just want children, especially that are Native, to see themselves in a positive way when they pick up a book. I didn't have that. It was always blonde hair, you know, real light-colored skin - not who I was when I was younger. I just didn't know where my people were.

BLAIR: Lindstrom says her mother died in 2015 without ever learning the power of her hair.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.