Colorado medical team cut 65-year-old Lakota man’s hair without permission, family says

A police investigation is underway after the family of a Lakota man said staff members at a Colorado hospital cut the 65-year-old’s hair without permission.

Members of UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora “lied” about having a video that allegedly showed the medical center was not at fault for cutting Arthur Janis’ hair, a regent of the University of Colorado said.

Arthur Janis is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, for whom hair is sacred from the moment of birth. It is significant in many sacred rites — such as the Keeping of the Soul, Arthur Janis’ brother, Keith Janis, said.

“Each of the strands is the power of you and represents your power as a Lakota individual,” he said. “It’s also a memorial to our loved ones that we’re leaving behind. … In any part of the hemisphere here, Indigenous people’s hair is sacred to them.”

Keith Janis contends that workers at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital neglected “basic hygiene” for his brother, whom he says suffered a stroke at the facility, leaving him unable to comb or wash his own hair.

Hospital spokesperson Dan Weaver said members of Arthur Janis’ care team had to trim his hair to address a medical concern, and said the hospital conducted its own “extensive” investigation into the allegations.

Arthur Janis with long hair.
Arthur Janis with long hair.Keith Janis

The medical team was concerned that there was a pressure ulcer at the back of Arthur Janis’s head, Weaver said. Unable to wash or comb out his “matted” hair, the care team trimmed it to access the area, according to Weaver.

“At no time prior to cutting the hair was the patient identified as someone with Native American ancestry or culture, even after discussion with his family,” Weaver said.

Keith Janis said because of the stroke his brother had while in UCHealth’s care, he was unable to advocate for himself or comb and wash his own hair.

“They’re supposed to bathe you and do basic hygiene for you, and they didn’t do that for him,” Keith Janis said. “It’s a representation of their lack of care for him.”

Weaver also said “numerous interviews with care team members” indicated that the patient did not have waist-length hair when he was transported to the hospital from South Dakota for care in August.

Keith Janis disputed that claim as well, saying that, like many Native Americans, his brother’s hair was not uniform all the way around but was “almost to the bottom of his waist” in the back.

Nolbert Chavez, a regent of the University of Colorado, said UCHealth officials have refused from the start to take responsibility for cutting off “the majority” of Arthur Janis’ hair.

Before issuing the statement that its care team was responsible for the cutting, UCHealth officials told the Board of Regents that they had a video of Arthur Janis arriving at the hospital with short hair, but they later claimed the video showed him leaving the hospital with long hair, according to Chavez. He said no video was ever presented to the board.

“UC Health lied to the Board of Regents, the community, and especially the family about having a video that proved they were not at fault. They claim it proved their position and refuse to release it,” he said in a written statement. “Such treatment of Native Americans was common when Native American Boarding schools would forcibly cut the hair of children as a way of erasing their culture and history.”

The Board of Regents is responsible for appointing the UCHealth board members. Chavez said he plans to ask the Board of Regents to review how members are appointed as well as advocate for more diversity among its members.

“I hope that it becomes more representative of the community, and maybe if that’s the case, they’ll begin to listen and act accordingly,” he said.

In October, History Colorado, a charitable organization and an agency of the state, released its report on federal Indian boarding schools in Colorado between 1880 and 1920. The report documents the practice of hair cutting and its cultural impacts, forcing Euro-American standards of hairstyle even though “hair length was an important aspect of social identity” in Native communities.

Both Keith and Arthur Janis had their hair forcibly cut when they were required to attend boarding school as children, Keith Janis said. Now that it has happened to Arthur Janis again, his brother said, there is a need for policy changes that offer protections to Native people.

Last month, Keith Janis organized a march with members of the American Indian Movement outside UCHealth. He has also set up an online donation page to raise money for “follow-up investigative work,” including litigation fees.

Sydney Edwards, a spokesperson for the Aurora City Police Department, confirmed there is an active investigation into the incident after Keith Janis filed a report.

Arthur Janis is still receiving treatment at UCHealth, which Keith Janis described as “an awful feeling.” He said family members are looking for an alternative location for his brother to receive long-term care.

CORRECTION (Dec. 10, 2023, 5:40 p.m. ET): A headline on a previous version of this story misspelled the patient’s first name. He is Arthur Janis, not Anthony.