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Sacred Hair

Back in the fall, we started looking for a new Mentor to join our community. This search led us to connect with someone I've known for many years: Thomas George Jr. of Halalt First Nation. I first met Thomas as a colleague working in several of the communities I attended, and later discovered he was also the cousin of Mentor George Harris Jr. Thomas seamlessly integrated into the Leadership Team of two of our Dedicated Learning Circles, fitting in as if he had always been there. He is the perfect complement to our incredible crew.

To make things officially official, I decided it was time to coordinate a photoshoot day with my friend, ​Alec Watson​, and capture images of our Mentors who did not have professional headshots. As the day approached, Thomas reached out several times to understand what he should prepare for, how to dress, and what to expect. I told him he could wear whatever he liked, integrate regalia if he wished, and try out a few different looks on film.

On photoshoot day, I was having my photos taken when Thomas and his wife Candice arrived, arms filled with clothing, cedar hats, beading, and a blanket. I gave them space to get comfortable and overheard Thomas ask Alec if there was a place he could sit while Candace braided his hair. Alec produced a stool, and I watched as Thomas settled in and Candice began her task. It was a lovely moment to witness, clearly a familiar ritual for them. I asked if Alec could capture a few stills of the moment, and they graciously agreed. We all laughed when George told Thomas he didn't have to look so stoic and could maybe crack a smile.

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to connect with Thomas and Candice again. I asked if they would share a bit about the act of braiding and its cultural significance. Thomas explained:

"I have been taught that our hair is sacred, an extension of both our body and spirit. As a child, I learned the importance of protecting my hair—it was compared to our most private parts and was not to be touched by anyone. Our hair holds special power that can be accessed through contact, making it critical to shield it from those who might bring harm. Braiding, done by a loved one, weaves good medicine into my hair and offers protection by keeping it close to my body. This intimate task is one that I will only have my wife perform."

As we spoke, I began considering Thomas' words in relation to my own professional practice and for others who work in healthcare. During a patient exam, there are many times my hands may come in contact with a person's hair:

  • When I am affixing the bib and sweeping the bib chain under the hair;

  • When I am completing an extraoral cancer screening and palpating along the base of the hairline and down the neck;

  • When a long-haired patient is reclined in my dental chair, and their hair falls into my lap.

I asked Thomas if there were things I could or should be doing during these exchanges to ensure I interact with folks in a culturally aware way. He advised,

"Always ask permission before touching a person's hair, and give them space to decide if they will allow you. Some people may want to get to know you better before they allow such an intimate exchange, so give them a chance to trust you. It may not happen on the first appointment."

I am grateful for Knowledge Keepers like Thomas who offer guidance on the nuances of my practice where I could unintentionally harm my patients, and thankful for his willingness to share his words with our readers so others can benefit from his wisdom. Huy ch q'u for your generosity, siem.

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