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Indigenous Airman’s braided hair represents USAF’s evolution of inclusivity

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Elora J. McCutcheon
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

When Senior Airman Connor Crawn received a religious hair accommodation in October of 2022, after more than two years of fighting for the freedom to display his Kanien'kehà:ka faith, he had no idea what the future held for him as a pillar for his indigenous community.

Now, with a new, tidily tapered braid extending an inch beyond the bottom of his collar, Crawn proudly and excitedly fills a steadfast role as an educator and example of military professionalism.

Airmen have the right to request religious accommodation from a policy, practice, or duty, based on the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes. The coordination process includes commanders, chaplain corps personnel, medical providers, judge advocates and other subject matter experts, who funnel requests to ultimately be decided by the Surgeon General for the U.S. Air Force.  

Crawn’s accommodation authorized him grow his hair long enough to gather into a braid or ponytail to be worn down his back, in accordance with the female hair standards in the DAF Instruction 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, once he moved away from the stereotypical high and tight haircut most men sport in uniform and started growing his hair past his ears, people began to notice.

“For the most part, it’s just looks,” he described of the attention he received from fellow service members. “And then you have higher leadership…who are not so keen to be polite, but you take it with a grain of salt because you understand they have been in for so long and things have always been the same way.”

Rather than avoid the potentially awkward confrontation of curious onlookers, though, Crawn uses those moments to share his story.

“I really do enjoy being able to talk about it,” he said. “My hair definitely gives me an outlet to educate people on Native culture and beliefs in a practical, professional way.”

Beyond the interest received from currently serving personnel, Crawn has endured an entire demographic of veterans online who share their unfiltered thoughts on his individuality and why they think it spells the downfall of the U.S. armed forces.

“It honestly doesn’t faze me hearing those old-school vets speak so low of me and our ‘current Air Force,’” he said. “I was raised to be resilient and proud of who I am. I think the naysayers should keep the negativity to themselves, especially if they can’t recognize the beauty in diversity.”

Crawn relies on his local Native “family” and a network of supportive friends to tune out the cynicism and proudly celebrate the contributions his community has collectively made.

Senior Airman Reece Kyler, one of Crawn’s closest friends and wingmen, has been a strong ally since the pair of convoy team leaders met as new hires to the 341st Missile Security Operations Squadron Convoy Response Force in November of 2022.

The two quickly became close thanks to their similarities in character and spiritual beliefs, according to Reece.

“My support of [Crawn] came naturally,” Reece said in regard to his friend’s waiver advocacy. “His culture is vitally important to him…and what he finds important, I too find important. I am proud to know him, as his determination, strength and cheerfulness are not only contagious, but inspiring.”

Crawn could have taken his accommodation as an individual win and moved on to continue in his career, but his priority shifted to being a beacon of change for the thousands of Native men in the United States who are currently serving or interested in serving.

His story has garnered nationwide attention, which has worked to the advantage of the dozens of Native men in the Air Force and Army who have directly reached out to Crawn for mentorship and guidance for their own religious accommodation requests. Thanks to his diligent support, he reports that at least eleven were successful in their endeavors.

By proudly and unapologetically sharing his personal experience, Crawn has also had the opportunity to meet with a variety of Native organizations within the state of Montana who invited him to speak with Native youth, dance in ceremonial powwows, and receive honors.

He was even “adopted” by a local man who sang Crawn an honor song and gifted him an eagle feather—the highest honor a Native person can earn, especially as a warrior.

The warrior mentality, as described by Crawn, is a traditional belief that serves as a thread bonding Native men and women: no matter what tribe they hail from, or which branch they choose to serve in, serving is an honor worthy of respect.

American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the armed forces at five times the national average: they have the highest record of military service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups.

“I think [that number] could be even more, now that men can possibly keep their hair,” Crawn explained. “[Our hair] is a representation that we are still here. Here we are today, still wearing our hair in braids like our ancestors. We are upholding our past as Native people, despite going through so much oppression in North America.”

As put by Reece, the significance of Crawn’s accommodation is evident in that it opens the door for future Airmen who hold their religious values in high regard.

Similarly to total force Airmen, recruits have the right to submit a pre-accession exception to policy request of religious accommodation for dress and appearance policy, immunizations, diet, and worship, and to receive a decision before entry into the Department of the Air Force.

“He has helped the Air Force to be more accepting of religious views held by Native Americans across the nation,” Reece said. “I know how passionate Crawn is about Native American advocacy, and him assisting in establishing this precedent has been important not just for himself, but for others within the community.”

At the surface-level, Crawn’s authorization to wear his hair in a braid and confidently claim his identity once again may seem insignificant to the evolutionary timeline that is military inclusivity.

Though, as argued by Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, developing a more diverse organization will yield a stronger, more adept Air Force and nation.

Where American citizens were possibly once discouraged from fulfilling a patriotic duty, some may soon feel an optimistic welcome into a community where they can serve to their full potential.

Crawn’s identity was severed when he heeded the call to serve and conformed to the standards that came along with it. Now, three years later, he bares himself in a dignified manner as proof that military professionalism does not have to waver with the introduction of change and acceptance.

For more information regarding the process for submitting a religious accommodation request, see DAF Instruction 52-201, Religious Freedom in the Department of the Air Force.