Education | National | Sports

Apology offered to girls who were forced to change Navajo hairstyle

The Flagstaff Lady Eagles at a game in January 2016. Photo by Jake Bacon / Facebook

Correction: The photo of the girls basketball team from Westwood High School was taken by Casey Sanderson. An earlier version of the post attributed the photo to the wrong person.

Update: A statement from the Flagstaff Lady Eagles Booster Club reads in part
"HUMBLE. If everything could be summed up in one word, it would be humble. We never imagined that our Lady Eagles, after being made to take down their expression of culture, their Tsiyéél, would become the topic of discussion around the world."
-- Posted February 7, 2016

A girls basketball team in Arizona is seeing a lot of support after its members were forced to get rid of their Navajo hairstyle before a game this week.

The Flagstaff Lady Eagles had their hair tied in a traditional "tsiiyeeł" as they prepared to face the Greenway Demons on Tuesday evening. The style seemed all the more appropriate because it was Native American culture night at the home game. Photos on the booster club's Facebook page showed the girls getting ready for the big event.

But the girls' pride in their Navajo heritage was cut short when the referee asked them to remove the ties from their hair due to alleged safety concerns. The players complied but the request drew fire from the leader of the Navajo Nation.

The girls basketball team from Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona, shows solidarity with the Flagstaff Lady Eagles. Photo by Casey Sanderson / Facebook

“I watch quite a number of sporting events including both boys and girls basketball," President Russell Begaye said in a press release. "At many of the games, you’ll find girls teams wearing ribbons to support a cause or to show team pride. Our Navajo athletes should never be punished for expressing pride in their culture or who they are.”

Begaye called on all referees who officiate games on and near the reservation to undergo cultural sensitivity training to avoid similar situations in the future. Flagstaff High School is located in a border town and Principal Tony Cullen was just as upset.

“The interpretation of this rule was way off. When I found out about it, I was fuming,” Cullen said in the tribe's press release.

Students at the Flagstaff Bordertown Dormitory on the Navajo Nation in Arizona prepare to wear their tsiiyeeł at a basketball game. Photo from BGCA BIE Verizon Project / Facebook

The setback didn't throw the Lady Eagles off their game -- they defeated their rivals 52 to 42. But both Begaye and Cullen said they are protesting the referee's call with the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which offered an apology to the team yesterday.

"The official did not mean any insult to the girls or Navajo Nation and on behalf of the AIA, we apologize for any upset the situation may have caused," Gary Whelchel, the organization's commissioner, said in a press release.

The girls basketball team at Pinon High School on the Navajo Nation in Arizona played with their hair in tsiiyeeł style at a game on February 4, 2015. Photo by Tilman Gonnie‎ / Facebook

Whelchel, however, said the referee acted within his authority to ask the girls to remove the ties from their hair and let down their buns. The AIA, though, promised to improve cultural sensitivity training.

But Cullen insisted that the tsiiyeeł style does not pose any dangers on the court. He said the girls team from Page High School, a public school on the reservation, once wore their hair tied up during a state championship game.

The rule also doesn't appear to affect other sports. Players on the Lady Eagles volleyball team have worn ties in their hair during games although not entirely in the same manner as the tsiiyeeł.

Some examples of the tsiiyeeł Navajo hairstyle. Photo by tsiiyeeł / Instagram

Meanwhile, the team is seeing support as girls at other schools in Arizona and even one in Utah are putting their hair up during games in a sign of solidarity with the Lady Eagles. People on social media are also posting photos of their tsiiyeeł and their buns, a style that can be worn by girls, women, men and boys.

The Lady Eagles plan to wear the tsiiyeeł at their home game tonight against Coconino High School. The AIA has said the team won't have to take down their ties or buns.

Join the Conversation