Pressure is mounting on a Australian private school that is demanding a 5-year-old Cook Islander boy cut his hair.
Earlier this week Cook Islands News revealed the story of Cyrus Taniela, whose parents were planning to give him a traditional hair-cutting ceremony on his 7th birthday.
But after his first week at school, his mum was pulled aside and told she had to cut his hair, “cultural or not”.
Cyrus’s father Jason Taniela’s family is from Mangaia, and his mum’s family is from Samoa and Aitutaki. “They don’t understand what it is coming to Australia,” Wendy Taniela said last night. “We’re slowly forgetting our cultural heritage.”
Australian Christian College has now doubled down: Gary Underwood, the principal at Moreton, near Brisbane, has told Wendy Taniela that she must cut his hair or Cyrus will have to leave the school.
It’s the same school that his older sister Jaylia-Anna has been at for two years.
The Taniela family have been planning Cyrus’ traditional haircutting ceremony for the past three years. It is to be held in Sydney on his 7th birthday.
Family in New South Wales, Queensland, Samoa, Niue and of course, Cook Islands, are saving to come over. More than 100 family members are expected.
Wendy Taniela met with the principal this week. “He said, can’t you just bring the ceremony forward?” she said. “But this is a big cost, and we have other family commitments. We don’t all drive BMWs.”
Jason Taniela has been dreaming of his son’s hair-cutting ceremony ever since Cyrus was born. “The main reason for my husband is his cultural beliefs,” Wendy Taniela said.
“Ever since he was little he wanted a ceremony, but that was his brother’s honour because he was the oldest boy.
“So when he and I first met, we talked about how we would continue that tradition because it meant a lot.
“We’ve grown with his hair, as a family. It’s a routine when we wake up in the morning. It’s a family tradition to tie his hair.
“I spend more time on my son’s hair than on my daughter’s, because he’s inherited the waves! Since last week, I have braided it and tucked it up, above his collar. It is a fiddle. It takes me five minutes every morning, 10 minutes is he doesn’t sit still.”
She asked the principal if that was enough – but he said that was no longer his decision, it was a matter for the College’s board.
Underwood has now issued a media statement, sticking to his decision but claiming he had spent time in the Cook Islands and was “an enthusiastic supporter of Islander people and their customs”.
Asked whether his ruling was an expression of racist discrimination, Underwood acknowledged the importance of cultural customs and respect of authority to Pacific peoples – but he also said they needed to respect Australian Christian College’s policies, procedures and guidelines.
To be consistent, he said, all students had to conform to the board-approved rules: “Boys’ hair is to be neat, tidy, above the collar and must not hang over the face. Extreme styles, ponytails and buns are not permitted.”
To support his assertion that he was “an enthusiastic support of Islander people”, Underwood also issued a photo of Pacific students performing a lunchtime show for classmates.
But the photo was issued without their permission – and Wendy said some of the girls in the photo were her own family, whose parents shared her concerns. “For him to be so naive and to put up a photo of all those Islander kids – some of those girls are my nieces!”
He also told Wendy Taniela that he had worked to make the school more multi-ethnic. “When I started, I walked into a parade of blue-eyed, blond-haired children,” he told her. I’ve tried to make it more multicultural.”
Queensland Human Rights Commission spokeswoman Kate Marsh said the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act banned racial discrimination in schools. “Cultural practice is generally accepted to be included under the attribute of race.”
She said Australian Christian College’s hair policy appeared to be indirect discrimination – meaning it would flout the law.
The Human Rights Commission would be likely to accept a complaint about Cyrus’ treatment, she said, if the family lodged one.
The Taniela family are now considering lodging a complaint, if the school does not back down.
Lucille Cutting, cofounder of The Pin website in Australia, told ABC that she had been dismayed to read of Cyrus’ treatment.
“I thought, what a way to oppress culture, and what a way to miss out on an educational opportunity for other students,” she said.
“That sense of identity that you get from being able to participate in a cultural celebration is so important – it’s a type of education that you just can’t get in the classroom.
“And his peers could have learnt about the rite of passage that he was going through. So I hear it, and it makes me sad, because that’s a type of education that very rarely comes about in an Australian school.”
The Pin is a discussion platform centered around representing multinational and multicultural people in a diverse range of conversations about race, identity, and culture within the Australian narrative.
Earlier this week, Cook Islands Library and Museum curator Jean Mason said the family should sue the school. “It’s a human rights issue,” she said. “Is this what they tell the Sikhs too, to cut their hair off?”