As the state of the world changes everyday, we find the space to reflect on the traditions that keep us grounded. Throughout quarantine, when the days and nights melted together, we turned to braids and beads to remind ourselves of the places and people that we love. Braids and beads are ways to wear our history and stories on our bodies and honor our ancestors. Although each braid pattern or bead style can differ depending on your family’s traditional ways, the general practice ties together much larger Indigenous communities. As 2020 unfolds, we are weaving our stories through our braids and our beads.
Braiding, at times, feels like the only way I can be close to my relatives. I know when I brush my hair through, pick up three or four strands, and start weaving them together in a practiced, ancient pattern, that thousands of my ancestors have done the same. Braids vary greatly by region. In Tlaxcala it is common to see Indigenous styles such as loop braids that have colorful ribbons woven in. Some miles over you might see people wearing their hair in two long braids tied together by a single ribbon. Indigenous braiding styles have been imitated and copied by many in history. The braid crown Frida Kahlo is so famous for is actually a hairstyle that belongs to the Mazateca peoples. The side buns (squash blossom whorls) recognizable on Princess Leia, in truth belong to Hopi peoples. Indigenous braiding has a history of being sacred and also taken by others who might deny the humanity or existence of those they are stealing style from.
For me, braiding is an act of reclamation and therapy. By braiding my hair into traditional styles I am able to give myself good energy, as one should only braid hair with good intentions. Braids are also a way to show that I am proud of where I come from. When I first got to Yale I was nervous to wear my hair in loop braids because I worried it would attract unwanted attention. While I had seen these braids worn with pride during Ballet Folklorico performances, I was worried that my peers or professors would see my braids as a costume or an oddity rather than a daily expression of love for my culture.
The first time I wore my hair in loop braids was on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The infectious feelings of joy and unity on the day of celebration gave me the boost I needed to braid my hair and wear a traditional dress. Walking to my first class I was hyper aware of how others saw me. Every time a person looked at me or did not look at me I read it as intrigue or disgust. Even though I spent the entire day feeling like I was tiptoeing, I still felt accomplished. I felt like I was carrying my ancestors in my braids.
Continuing from that day, the more I wore my hair in different braids, the more my fear started to dissipate. I became excited to do my braids every morning and try new Indigenous styles. It was a therapeutic exercise that calmed me. My friends know me as a stress braider, eager to put good energy into my own or others hair in order to ease emotional turmoil. It quickly became routine for me to try a new braid type every week. I got a CEID membership so I could take pieces of their ribbon and braid them into my hair. Even during quarantine the simple act of braiding, unbraiding and braiding again calms me. Braiding provides me with invaluable lessons on balance, intention and tradition. These same lessons can be found in other Indigenous traditions like beading.
I learned to bead from my grandmother, aunties, Indigenous matriarchs in my communities and the trusty Native YouTubers. It started small. Finding moments of peace after a busy school day by mixing colors and tying strings. Pairing the perfect beaded dangles with my bright yellow belt. Already a grounding practice, beading during quarantine became a lifestyle. If I missed someone, I sent them earrings. If I felt troubled, I would sit in front of my beads and let them work my anxieties away. Feeling so far from everyone, I poured my memories and experiences into beads. Collarbone-length sunsets for the ones I watched on lake drives in high school. Three beaded bees with little glassy blue wings for the ones greeting me in my mom’s garden. A sketch for a mehndi inspired pair to honor the two cultures that make me who I am. Nowadays, I go to sleep dreaming of beads and wake up with new pieces on my mind. The beading area of my dining room table is my go-to spot every morning.
Like Alex, beads help me show I am proud of where I come from. Originally created from stone, bones and quill, beadwork has long represented the duality of Indigenous art and everyday functionality. Unlike some other forms of art, meant only to be displayed, beadwork exists in everyday objects and on everyday ears. True to my ancestors’ practices, my beads are a tool to help me feel confident and proud as an Indigenous Indian woman. The practice of beading allows me to channel my energies into therapeutic creativity, to carry my relatives with me wherever I go and to simply make myself feel beautiful.
In my first few days at Yale, as I adjusted to college life away from the beads of my home, I went to the AfAm House-sponsored Intercultural Mixer in hopes of finding a community. After sitting down at a randomly chosen table, full of my soon to be close friends, I immediately noticed the bracelet on the wrist of the woman across from me. Turquoise and silverwork; something, though still unique, that you would find in a pow wow vendors stall. I smiled; how serendipitous to be sitting across from another Yale Native. Later, I’d find out she was thinking the same thing about me, having noticed my porcupine quill beaded dangles. Our art helps us find each other and makes us feel close. This is how we weave our stories.
On a bad day, braids and beads can make all the difference. They calm us, empower us, bring us joy and confidence and lead us to each other. Our braids and our beads are signs of love. They remind us of the people and places we hold close. We are taught to pour good thoughts and medicine into our braids and our beads, to send strength into every woven story. It is a great honor to braid someone’s hair or have one’s hair braided, and to wear someone’s hand crafted beadwork. When we walk on Yale campus in braids or beads, or both, we know we are not walking alone.
You can view Hema’s beading projects on her Instagram @beadworkbyhema
Alexandra Contreras-Montesano and Hema Patel | email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org