June 03, 2019

Right to Regalia: Let Those Feathers Fly at Graduation

Zoey Serebriany

With the annual return of high school graduation season, controversy around Native American regalia again seeps into news headlines. Throughout the years, schools have banned students from wearing cultural regalia, such as feathers and beaded caps, to commencement ceremonies. Recently, however, hope for a brighter, more inclusive future is springing into fruition.

Earlier this spring, North Dakota’s State Legislature signed House Bill 1335 into law, which allows students to wear “traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance” and bars school districts from prohibiting students wearing such items at graduation ceremonies. HB1335 was introduced and spearheaded by Rep. Ruth Buffalo, an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, and the first female Native American representing North Dakota in the state's Legislative Assembly. Only a few months into her term, Buffalo has introduced several Native American rights bills now signed into law.

There are about 40,000 Native people in North Dakota, making up a little more than 5 percent of the total population. Until the implementation of HB1335 in North Dakota, it was up to the school board of each district to decide what these students could wear to graduation ceremonies.

Graduation season serves as a reminder every year of the continued scrutiny given to Native American regalia. Despite progress in some states, there are still many areas in the country where students are banned from wearing regalia to graduation.

For too long, schools have been given the legitimacy and power to restrict Native American students’ cultural expression.

Tvli Birdshead, a Chickasaw Nation tribal member and student from Latta High School in Oklahoma, was recently told that he would not be allowed to wear a beaded cap and feather to graduation. When Birdshead heard the news that he would not be allowed to wear his cultural regalia, he was disappointed but not surprised.

"I was frustrated at first, but I had already prepared myself for that answer.” Birdshead told TODAY. “I had heard past stories of other students being denied (the right) to wear their regalia during graduation."

Birdshead’s mother reached out to school officials to discuss this issue further. The school responded to her by saying that they would not allow her son to wear the Native regalia because if they made an exception for him, other “organizations” would attempt to seek similar treatment.

In comparing Chickasaw cultural identity to an “organization”, Latta High School’s administration is dismissing the experience of Native Americans whose identity is entrenched in their cultural and religious traditions.

In 2017, another student in Oklahoma, also from the Chickasaw Nation, was denied the right to wear Native American regalia and was told that if he wore a feather to graduation, he would not be allowed to graduate or receive his diploma until he completed summer school and community service hours.

For too long, schools have been given the legitimacy and power to restrict Native American students’ cultural expression.

Forced Assimilation

Prohibiting students from expressing their Native American identities, both in the past and present, should raise concern. Not only are Native students limited in cultural expression at commencement ceremonies, school curricula are so geared toward a colonized version of history that Native students are constantly surrounded by a society that pushes Indigenous cultures and history aside. Therefore, it is extremely important that educational institutions honor Native American tradition by allowing Native students to wear cultural regalia at commencement ceremonies and protect that right whenever it is threatened.

Preventing students from wearing regalia at graduation is a continuation of the aggressive assimilation policy that the U.S. has inflicted on Native people for much of the last two centuries.

In the 1870s, the American government began taking Native American youth from their families and shipping them off to boarding schools, thus beginning what is now known as the “Boarding School Era.” Richard Pratt, the founder of the first American Indian boarding school, stated that the purpose of the schools was to “kill the Indian...and save the man.” In other words, the schools were meant to destroy any trace of Indigeneity and forcibly assimilate them into the Anglo-American culture; such schools were places of genocide and trauma, meant to strip Natives of their identities and coerce them into the trappings of white colonizers.

At these boarding schools, boys with long hair would not be allowed to receive their rations. Students would be taught that it was wrong to practice their culture, religion, and language. Educators forced pupils to disavow their religious beliefs.

To continue the institutionalized assimilation of Native students in a settler educational system is to continue this horrific U.S. policy and the legacy of genocide that birthed it.

Freedom of Regalia

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), enacted on August 11, 1978, states that United States policy will assure the protection and right to practice traditional Native American religions through access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonies and traditional rituals. This law was created with the intention of protecting and preserving Native peoples’ traditional religions and cultural practices. AIRFA would also prevent agencies from interfering when people choose to practice their Native religions.

In a country where Native peoples were viewed as less than human for centuries, AIRFA was created to ensure that Native Americans gained access to First Amendment rights—a basic provision of the U.S. Constitution.

Students being prohibited from wearing cultural regalia to their graduation, however, is an example of the limits of AIRFA. Despite being guaranteed the right to practice religious freedom, students are still subjected to school board determination as to whether they can wear regalia to graduation. In a response to this discrepancy, some states have passed laws and bills which grant Native American students this right.

“SB 319 allows for us to showcase a part of our Native American culture, and take pride in the fact that as Native American students we have accomplished a huge milestone in life.” 

– Georgeline Moresette, graduate of Billings West High School.

Back in 2017, Montana passed Senate Bill 319, which mandates that tribal regalia and other objects of cultural significance are allowed at public events—including graduation ceremonies—and prohibits the state or local government from stopping an individual from wearing such regalia. SB 319 was the first bill of its kind in the United States, and was successful thanks to a group of Native American students who testified at a Montana Legislature hearing in order to express the importance of passing this bill.

“SB 319 allows for us to showcase a part of our Native American culture, and take pride in the fact that as Native American students we have accomplished a huge milestone in life,” Georgeline Moresette, a graduate of Billings West High School, shared in a press release from Western Native Voice.

Around a year later, in March of 2018, Kansas passed a similar law. The bill allows people to wear traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance to public events and prohibits government agencies or local governments from stopping them. Thus, Kansas school boards are no longer allowed to prohibit students from wearing their cultural regalia to graduation ceremonies.

South Dakota has a codified law, SDCL § 13-1-66, which states that traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance must be permitted at graduation ceremonies and students shall not be prohibited from having such items at school ceremonies.

In California, a state with a diverse population of Indigenous people, Assembly Bill 1248 added section 35183.1 to the Education Code on January 1, 2019, changing the graduation dress code rules and allowing students to wear traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment to graduation ceremonies. The bill continues to state that the school or local education agency may only step in and stop a student from wearing something of this manner if it is considered to be an endorsement of religious viewpoints.

While it is crucial to acknowledge these victories for the freedom of Native American cultural expression in certain states, it’s also essential to demonstrate the need for more legal action of this nature throughout the U.S.

Emmy Scott (pictured above) graduated with a Juris Doctor degree from Michigan State University College of Law. She is HoChunk/Spokane/Arikara from the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska.

Milestone Ceremonies  

Because of ongoing disenfranchisement by the settler state, Native American youth have one of the lowest graduation rates of any demographic in the U.S. Indigenous students who bypass the many hurdles in front of them to graduate from secondary or higher educational institutions should be able to celebrate this accomplishment in accordance with their cultural identity.

Milestone ceremonies, such as a high school graduation, are deeply significant to Native American culture and identity, as they are in most other cultures within the United States. An eagle feather, for instance, signifies the strength it took to reach this milestone and the resilience it will take to continue into the next stages of life. To receive these items to wear at a ceremony is considered an incredible honor, which makes this display of cultural regalia even more significant. For some Native students, wearing an eagle feather may be just as important as receiving the actual diploma. By wearing these items, students are also able to honor their ancestors and the generations of resilience it took for them to cross the graduation stage.

High school student and Choctaw tribe member Skylar Ash, who fought for her right to wear a beaded cap at graduation, expressed  to National Education Association Today that she was one of the few people in her family to receive a high school diploma. She shared that it was important for her to be able to wear the beaded cap because it was a demonstration, for all of the people who came before her and were not able to graduate, that Native American people are strong and can overcome struggles—especially in the realm of education.

“It is not decoration, to flaunt. In any ceremony, it’s part of us as Natives. I’m not going to use crazy colors. I’ll be using our school colors. It’s respecting myself, family, and elders, and it’s also a dedication to those who couldn’t get to this point,” Ash said.

“In high school, I was told I was not allowed [to wear regalia], and that I would be denied my walk across the stage if I did wear it. Two years later, my sister and mother pushed the school system to #LetTheFeathersFly. Four years later, I didn’t ask to wear it at my graduation from Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school that was founded and funded over 200 years ago on a promise of educating the Indigenous people of this continent — a commitment they didn’t uphold until the 1970s. #JUSTWEARIT.” 

– Helen Thomas, Huŋkpapa Lakota ​(pictured above)

Looking Forward

Cultural expression is exceedingly important in every area of life, especially during the celebration of accomplishments. Not being able to express cultural identity is shown to have negative impacts on mental wellbeing and success. The prohibition of students’ cultural expression is shown to actively hinder performance in academia, lead to depleted self-worth, or cause mental health crises. In a country founded on the genocide of Native Americans, it is crucial that Native American students are allowed to honor their roots in moments of notable achievement.

More states in this country should follow the lead of the handful which have implemented laws to protect these students’ rights. We must all work together to show our support so more bills securing these rights get signed into law.

As graduation season continues, think about the people in your life who have graduated already or who will graduate. As they achieve a major accomplishment, don't the original people of this land deserve to celebrate joyfully and without obstacles, just like any other person?

The hashtag  is credited to SaNoah LaRocque (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) and Bettyanne Thomas (Huŋkpapa Lakota) who originated it in 2015. The two ran a campaign in Grand Forks, ND, to change their school's policy and eventually participated in a TedTalk on the matter. See @LetTheFeathers on Twitter for more info.