#Boyswithbraids campaign takes root in Edmonton's Indigenous communities

Jayroy Makokis' hair hasn't seen scissors in years.

For the Edmonton man, his carefully braided hair — which now reaches below his broad shoulders — is a symbol of pride in his culture, and a way to impart that pride on to his young children.

"I had a spiky hairdo, the faux hawk they called it, with the number two around the side, but now my hair, when it's out of its braid, it's to the bottom of my back," Makokis said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Makokis spoke about the cultural significance of his hair during a recent panel discussion organized by a group of students advocating for mandatory native studies courses at the University of Alberta.

"I started growing my hair four years ago when I started straightening my life out, when I stopped drinking, when I stopped going around partying. I wanted to reconnect with my culture."

Makokis is part of a new movement called Boys with Braids, founded by Michael Linklater who is Nehiyaw (Cree) from Thunderchild First Nation, Sask., whose young sons were often bullied for their long-braided hair.

The national social media campaign aims to educate the public on why Indigenous men and boys wear braids and foster understanding of the practice. A quick glance at  #boyswithbraids on Twitter pulls up hundreds of photographs of Indigenous men sporting their long hair with pride.

When Makokis started growing out his hair, his three-year-old son decided to follow suit.

Since then, they've inspired many other fathers and sons to do the same, he said.

He grew up in the city, removed from his band's traditions, but he wants his son to have a sense of pride about his culture.

Indigenous people aren't a homogenous group, and each nation has different teachings on why boys and men wear braids, Makokis said.

For many who wear a braid for cultural reasons, the only time they cut their hair is when they are grieving the loss of loved ones.

'I had to search for culture'

For Makokis, who hails from Saddle Lake First Nation, braids connects him spiritually to the land, his ancestors and the Creator.

He began exploring the practice a few years ago with the help of his adoptive father, a Maskwacis elder who he sought out as a his cultural mentor.

"I had to search for culture as a I got older, and I found my adopted dad in Maskwacis ... and he taught me these values and why we grow our hair and have these ceremonies."

"This is the way we were made in the beginning of time. Our Creator, he moulded us and he used sweetgrass for our hair and he made us in the image of himself. He wanted us to look like him and that's why we have our braids."