(Reuters) - Arizona athletic officials have apologized for barring a mostly Native American high school basketball team from playing with Navajo buns in their hair, clearing the way for them to sport the tribal symbol of rejuvenation at a game on Friday.
Flagstaff High School principal Tony Cullen said he was “livid” with the decision against the school’s girls basketball team, the Eagles, at their game on Tuesday.
“The traditional girls I think were upset, at the same time they’re very, very respectful,” Cullen said. “They’re not going to be the kind of ladies that raise a ruckus.”
The Arizona Interscholastic Association apologized for the decision at the game in Flagstaff and said the official did not mean offense but believed the bun fixed with yarn was a possible safety hazard for the players. The association pledged to continue working on cultural sensitivity.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a statement that sports referees in northern Arizona should receive more training to prevent “blatant discrimination” against students from the tribe.
The bun, which in Navajo is called a tsiiyéél, represents rain, rejuvenation, and the act of connecting one’s thoughts to a higher purpose. The hair is folded back on itself at the back of the head, and the bun is generally tied with wool.
All members of the team, which is mostly made up of Navajo players, on Tuesday wore the hair buns as part of a larger celebration of Native American heritage at the game, which included the singing of the Navajo anthem, said school athletic director Jeannine Brandel. They had to undo the buns because of the referee’s decision, she said.
For their game on Friday evening against cross-town rival Coconino High School, the Eagles will sport the Navajo hair buns with approval of the Arizona Interscholastic Association and some girls on the opposing team will wear it in solidarity, Brandel said.
The student body at Flagstaff High, in the city of Flagstaff just over 20 miles (32 km) west of the Navajo Reservation, is nearly 30 percent Navajo, Cullen said.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler