What is the cultural importance of hair?
The Anishinaabe people believe that your hair is a source of power, strength, and important medicines. As with any organ of your body, it has importance and is a part of you for a reason. The reasons are not altogether very clear. One important tennant of First Nations spirituality is that not all questions can be answered, and we as human spirits must be patient enough to recognize and accept that. Our hair has spiritual power, and its medicine can affect our lives in positive ways by growing it out. The more of it, the better. It makes your will and energy more focused and stronger.
For example: the mother of a friend of mine is currently undergoing high-risk treatment for a heart condition that she has been suffering from for a few years. A medicine person known and trusted by my friend and I told my friend not to cut her hair, that it was helping to keep her will to keep her mother alive strong.
In addition to the spiritual implications, there is also the fact that our hair is a part of our body and our bodies are sacred. I have been taught that the disposal of hair must be taken seriously and done in a respectful way. For example: when most people go to a salon to get a haircut they stylist simply sweeps up the remains and throws them in a trash bin. My stylist who I'm comfortable with and have known for over a year, sweeps my hair up, puts it in a bag, and gives it to me at the end of every appointment. Some burn it and others bury it.
There are various beliefs behind why careful disposal is important despite just the sacredness of the body. One that I will mention is that many do it out of concern of having a "jiibaa" (effectively, a curse) put on them by a person. Hair is a powerful conduit to a person's spirit and can be easily used to place a curse on someone.
Are There Stigmas Attached To Those Who Cut Their Hair?
Yes and no, depending on the person and community. There are those who cut their hair for spiritual reasons, and others who do so for contemporary fashion or acceptance reasons. Many people, when suffering a loss, will cut their hair to express how deep their grief goes and to represent and spiritual reset button. You are at your most vulnerable, and many times will endure ceremonies in order to get all of your grief out (as the standard grieving time in Anishinaabe country is one year, and subsequent yearly ceremonies to honor the spirit and memory of that lost person). Many also do this after experiencing something traumatic or heartbreaking. I cut off my mid-back hair to my chin in 2008 after a horrible break-up (and by horrible I'm talking police cars and red-eye flights home) in order to begin my grieving process, and was applauded by the medicine people in my life. These are highly acceptable reasons to cut one's hair.
The fashion/acceptance reason is really up to each individual. I know many very traditional First Nations people who simply choose to keep it short as its easier to care for. Some youngsters choose to keep it short (especially males) to fit in at school. I know many Anishinaabe boys who spent their youth made fun of because they refused to cut their hair. My fiancee cut his hair last year after deciding he was tired of having it long and having to care for it. Once he did, his auntie yelled at him, and all of our friends asked me how I could "let him do such a thing." I simply explained it was his head and I supported whatever he wanted to do with it. Mostly, I think they were just jealous of his "wasted" long, wavy locks :P.
That's a quick crash-course on the importance of hair amongst those in my community. As for me, I personally choose to grow my hair long and am happy to report that most of what I cut off back in '08 has grown back. I feel more spiritual power when my hair is long, not to mention more feminine and sexy. I'm sure many would argue those as being powers as well ;).