Call over Native American hair bun at game prompts outcry

BY foxsports • February 5, 2016

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) The girls on the Flagstaff High School basketball team plan to show up to their crosstown rivalry game Friday with traditional Navajo buns in their hair.

But unlike what happened at a game on Tuesday, they won't be asked to remove the hair pieces that were deemed a safety hazard.

The call by a referee at the game played in Flagstaff has been sharply criticized online, with some Navajos saying it was an attack on their heritage. School Principal Tony Cullen said he was livid and ''will defy the hell out of that'' if another referee attempts to make the same call. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said athletes shouldn't be punished for expressing pride in their culture.

The girls complied with the ruling, unraveling the yarn that was wrapped around their hair in celebration of Native American cultural might. The hairstyle is a key part of Navajo identity, worn by men and women. Long hair signifies the root of thought, rain, abundance and rejuvenation of life, said Jamescita Peshlakai, a staff assistant in Begaye's office. When it's tied up typically with spun sheep's wool or buckskin, the thoughts and prayers of Navajo people are contained within the bun, called a tsiiyeel in Navajo.

Earlier Tuesday, a drum group played an honor song and the school had a competition during the junior varsity game to see who in the crowd could wrap hair into a Navajo bun the fastest.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association, which governs high school sports, apologized for the call and said the official did not mean to insult anyone but acted within his authority and by the rulebook. Gary Whelchel, the association's state commissioner of officials, said the rule is a little vague but generally prohibits barrettes with hard surfaces, beads, picks or anything that could be perceived as dangerous.

''In this case the official who was there looked at them and felt they could possibly be a hazard on the court,'' he said. ''Another girl could get their hand caught in it.''

The association said it has bolstered training on cultural sensitivity, and the Flagstaff girls will be allowed to wear the Navajo hair buns in future games.

''Those are legal,'' Whelchel said. ''The official made a judgment that maybe he should have passed on.''

The girls sported the green and white hair pieces while warming up for their game on Tuesday against Greenway High School in Phoenix. Before the game started, an official told them they would have to take out the hair buns that had pieces of yarn dangling from them over safety concerns.

Victor Toehe was down on the basketball court with his 12-year-old daughter who sang the national anthem in Navajo. His older daughter, who is a senior on the basketball team, later walked over to him, shaking her head and visibly hurt over the referee's call. He helped her undo the yarn.

''We were kind of upset about it. But it wasn't like preparing for a rage or getting really upset,'' he said. ''Overall, it was a good night and just one incident overshadowed it.''