New laws back Indigenous students wearing tribal regalia at graduation
As high school and university students celebrate their graduations, some Indigenous students continue to face resistance for wearing tribal regalia with their caps and gowns. But more Mountain West states are passing legislation to protect that right.
Nevada's governor signeda new law last week that allows public school students to wear tribal, religious or cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies. Colorado passed a similar law earlier in May, but under that legislation the “qualified” student has to be registered with a tribe or have an Indigenous relative.
Utah and Arizona passed laws in the last two years protecting tribal regalia at graduations. Montana has had a law in place since 2017 that applies to graduations as well as other public events.
Matthew Campbell, deputy director of the Native American Rights Fund, said most schools understand that graduates already have a right to wear these symbols under the First Amendment, but every school district has different policies , and some are unwilling to compromise.
“We've heard many different reasons, you know, having students be in uniform attire, or it's a last opportunity to instill a respect for authority,” he said of some schools' decisions to restrict tribal regalia.
A couple weeks ago in Oklahoma, Lena’ Black, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and also of Osage descent, wore a sacred eagle plume with her graduation cap. It’s a symbol of strength and respect among many Indigenous tribes and is given in times of great honor. But Black said school officials forcefully tried to take the plume off of her cap and ultimately damaged it.
Black filed a lawsuit against the school for violating her right to free speech.
“It's something we get calls about almost every year,” said Campbell, who talks with school districts about supporting tribal attire. “This year was an interesting year. I think we have gotten more requests than normal this year.”
Campbell, a member of the Native Village of Gambell in Alaska, said it’s about more than a feather – it’s about representing the strength of Indigenous people and their traditions.
“Graduating high school is a major stepping stone for our Native students, given the history and the lower rates of graduation from high school,” he said. “To many students, being gifted a feather or a beaded cap or a star is more important than the diploma itself.”
The Native American Rights Fund has an informational brochure to educate schools about students' rights in wearing tribal regalia at graduation, and in particular the significance of donning eagle feathers for Native American communities.
“They're not decorations,” Campbell said. “These things are as important as the diploma, or a student receiving an honor cord or being a part of DECA (a high school business club), you know, all of these different recognitions that we see schools allow.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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