Navajo Corporal Becomes First Marine Authorized to Wear Traditional Native Hair

Cpl. Bradford Flores
Cpl. Bradford Flores is the first Indigenous man to be allowed to wear traditionally long Navajo hair while in uniform. (Courtesy, Cpl. Bradford Flores).

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.

Read Next: House Approves $2.5 Billion for Junior Enlisted Raises, Which May Be $800 Million Too Little

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 Diné, as 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.

    "For decades, Native men have had to choose between their Native religion and serving in the armed forces," she wrote. "It is my hope that we are at a time when Native men will no longer be singled out for restrictions on practicing traditional Native beliefs, and still be able to serve with distinction in defense of this country."

    Native Americans have served in the U.S. military for two centuries and, more recently, at five times the national average, according to the USO. Specifically, Navajo men have a long, rich history of serving in the Marine Corps but even so, were not allowed to practice their heritage, Flores said.

    During World War II, nearly 200 Navajo Code Talkers joined the Marine Corps and the annals of military legend when they transmitted radio communications using their unique language to obfuscate messages on the battlefield. According to the Marine Corps, those messages were "undoubtedly" intercepted, but never deciphered by Axis powers.

    Now, Flores can both serve his country and observe critical tenets of his heritage. And for him, many of those tenets in Navajo and Marine Corps culture are not at odds -- they're complementary.

    "Especially with Marine Corps warrior ethos, a lot of that falls in line with Native culture, regardless of whatever tribe it is," he said. "We're natural warriors. ... That's why in our communities, anyone that joins the military -- they're very, very highly respected."

    Prior to shipping off to boot camp, Flores was honored by tribal leaders at a powwow for joining the military, a sign to him of communal support. That support extended to his Marine Corps community too, he said. With guidance from his leadership and chaplain, Flores began the process of requesting a religious exemption in 2023.

    He said he talked to one of his sergeants, who is also Native American, who gave him the confidence to request it. He recalled that sergeant saying, "If you decide to do that, we're going to be here and support you the whole way."

    A year later, in the middle of a training exercise in Arkansas, his first sergeant told Flores that he had been granted the accommodation. Part of the exception means that he must adhere to female hair standards, meaning he must keep it in a bun, or braids if he is out in the field.

    "It was awesome," Flores said. "The first thing I did was screenshot the religious accommodation and sent it over to my dad, my mom and my fiancée. They were all ecstatic."

    Flores is not alone in his efforts. Other services, such as the Army, have made exemptions for Indigenous service members as well. And Flores was inspired by Senior Airman Connor Crawn, who received a religious exemption for hair wear to observe his Kanien'kehà:ka, or Mohawk, tradition in 2022. Crawn is part of the Indigenous Nations Equality Team, or INET -- an Air Force-based initiative that provides advocacy and outreach for Native American service members.

    "Any sort of positive representation or awareness we can achieve relating to our Indigenous service members will always be a win," Crawn told by email Thursday of the news regarding Flores' accommodation. "Whether someone has something good to say or something bad to say about our Native men being able to grow their hair out in uniform, the discussion it creates alone brings awareness that we as Native people are still here, practicing our ways."

    Flores said he expects criticism and has already gotten some since announcing he is the first Indigenous man in the service to receive the accommodation. Largely, he said, that criticism has been outweighed by the support he has gotten from his Navajo and Marine Corps families.

    "Obviously, there are going to be people that have their criticisms and have their thoughts and opinions on it. But I don't care about any of the negative stuff," Flores said. "For me, my people, or even anyone that's interested in learning about it -- it's an opportunity for people that don't understand to learn or people that do understand it that want to be able to do this that are Indigenous ... and go forward with their process."

    Related: Indigenous Airman Celebrates Religious Approval to Have Long Hair in Uniform

    Story Continues