Posted on July 3, 2024

Navajo Corporal Becomes First Marine Authorized to Wear Traditional Native Hair

Drew F. Lawrence,, June 28, 2024

Cpl. Bradford Flores is honoring his culture by growing his hair out — and the Marine Corps authorized it.

Flores, a Native American service member and anti-tank missile gunner, is the first Marine in the Corps to receive a religious waiver allowing him to grow his hair long in accordance with his Navajo heritage, the service confirmed to on Tuesday.

The authorization, which was issued late last month, marks a critical milestone in a long push for service members to be allowed to observe religious practices while in uniform. The exemption is particularly notable, as the Marine Corps is known among the military branches to have the strictest adherence to uniformity and a reticence to allow exceptions to it.

For Flores, the push for his authorization is not driven by individualism, he told in a recent interview, but a desire to honor his Navajo heritage while simultaneously being a part of the Corps — and to help other Marines of Native American descent do the same.

“I know this is bigger than me,” Flores said. “This is for other people in my community.”

When he joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 2021, Flores was not able to wear his hair in the traditional fashion of the Navajo or Dinéas the tribe originally called itself. In his heritage, long hair exemplifies strength and communal identity, Flores said, and it is essential.

“In our culture, you only cut your hair if there’s a major life change or someone in the family passes,” he said. “Even when you cut your hair, you have to do things very ceremoniously … as an offering. You’re letting go of yourself.”

Originally from Oklahoma, Flores comes from a long line of military service members and Navajo tradition. His father served in the Air Force for more than two decades, and his great grandfather, also a Navajo man, served in World War II, Flores said.

Part of his push to request the accommodation was not only to be an example for other Indigenous men looking to join — or already in — the Corps, but to honor generations of his ancestors who served but were unable to observe their heritage while doing so.

“We, the Navajo people, weren’t treated the best,” Flores said, referring to generations of racism and oppression by the U.S. government and non-Indigenous groups. “But we make do with what we have, and that’s always been since the first Native people were around.”

As part of the religious accommodation process, Flores submitted a letter to the Marine Corps from the pastor of his church, the Rev. Dr. Justine Wilson.

“The cutting of Native men’s hair is a painful legacy of the practices of Native boarding schools, which sought to erase all traces of Native traditions from Native youth, down to prohibition of Native languages and the forcible cutting of hair,” she wrote.

Wilson said the effects of that forced assimilation and erasure have led to “astronomical” rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide within Native communities. And to forcibly shear one’s hair disconnects Indigenous men from the land and God.