FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — It was Native American Heritage Night, which began with the national anthem sung in Navajo.
Then mothers, aunts and grandmothers helped the entire team of mostly Native Americans put their hair up in a tsiiyéél, as it’s called, a traditional Navajo bun tied with yarn.
The Flagstaff High School Lady Eagles warmed up, but then a referee told them they couldn’t play, because he believed the buns broke regulation. He said the few inches of yarn could whip the girls in the eye or catch their hands.
Co-captain Shayleen Toehe explained to the official they wore them in honor of their culture. Toehe pointed out long ponytails are allowed.
“We were like kind of confused about that,” Toehe said.
The girls took out their buns anyway.
“It was embarrassing because we had to take it off in front of our parents [and] our grandparents,” Toehe said. “Everybody was like, ‘What’s happening? What’s happening?’”
Soon many Navajos took to social media to express their anger. Nikki Cooley was one of those people.
“[It] brought back stories of many Native people who have said when they were in boarding schools that they could not have their hair long, they could not speak their language and they could not partake in any of their ceremonies,” Cooley said.
Now Native Americans across the country have taken to social media posting pictures of themselves wearing the tsiiyéélto show their support for the Lady Eagles.
“We have come through all of that,” Navajo President Russell Begaye said. “And the reason there is such an uproar because we are saying 'never again.' We will stand our ground. We will defend our culture, who we are as a nation because we are proud.”
In response, the Arizona Interscholastic Association has since apologized and said the official made an error. The organization said it plans to improve its cultural sensitivity training.
A few days after the uproar, the Lady Eagles prepared to face off against their crosstown rivals. Pauline Butler came to watch her niece play, and to do hair. Equipped with a brush and yarn, Butler set up a folding chair next to the concession stand. Butler told the girls their hair represents their thoughts, their knowledge and their memories.
“What we’re doing is we’re gathering it and we’re tying it into a bun to make it so it’s not scattered anymore and they’re going to be focused,” Butler said.
And it wasn’t just the Lady Eagles who wore them. Around the packed stadium the buns were everywhere — Navajo women and men, young and old.
Even Maya Tijerin, a freshman basketball player for the Coconino Panthers, sported a bun.
“Everybody knows we’re rivals,” Tijerin said. “Everybody wants the bragging rights. But in the end we’re all Flagstaff kids. We’re all playing the same game. And we just wanted to show like who we are where we come from because this is our home.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to clarify the Lady Eagles are from Flagstaff High School.
Updated 2/11/2016 at 11:30 a.m.