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Eighteen-year-old Nyché Andrew stepped on stage to take the podium in front of her classmates and their families on an overcast afternoon last month. “We would like to take this moment to acknowledge the Dena’ina Athabascan people and the wisdom that has allowed them to steward the land on which Anchorage and Service High School reside,” the high school senior said.
It was a moment she’d been waiting for since her freshman year — not just to graduate from high school, but also to wear her traditional Yup’ik headdress and mukluks. As a 10th grader, Andrew, who is Yup’ik and Iñupiaq, testified in front of the Anchorage school board, advocating for Alaska Native and American Indian students’ right to wear their traditional regalia. That year, 2019, the district changed its policies to allow Indigenous students to wear cultural items along with their caps and gowns.
Schools have a long history of policing Native students’ graduation attire, often citing longstanding policies that all students must look alike and that deviations from the standard cap and gown are distracting. And even in school districts like Anchorage that have recently enacted policies allowing Native students to wear regalia, implementation has been uneven due to a lack of understanding of Native history and ways of life, advocates say. They argue that the practice of policing Indigenous students’ graduation attire is symptomatic of an education system woefully ignorant of, and insensitive to, Native culture.
Two days before Andrew wore her headdress and mukluks to her graduation, another Anchorage student, David Paoli, who is Iñupiaq from Uŋalaqłiq, was getting ready to graduate from West High School. He planned to wear a mortarboard his mother had sewn with sealskin and black beads — the same cap she’d worn to her own graduation from University of Alaska Fairbanks last year.
When a line of students marched out to take their seats, his mother, Ayyu Qassataq, who is also Iñupiaq from Uŋalaqłiq, couldn’t spot her son. She finally saw him, wearing a plain mortarboard.
“After the ceremony, I went out onto the field to meet my son, and he gave me a big hug,” Qassataq recalled last month. “And I was holding him and crying. And when we pulled away, the first thing he said to me was, ‘They took my sealskin cap, Mom.’”
A staff member who was unaware of the new policy had confiscated Paoli’s cap.
“I felt completely violated. And it immediately brought to mind what our peoples have endured at the hands of the education system,” Qassataq said.
Upon learning of the incident, the Anchorage school district superintendent, as well as the school’s principal, reached out to Paoli’s family the next day to apologize. But stories like Paoli’s occur somewhere in the United States every graduation season. Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the nonprofit National Indian Education Association, said that every year she has to write a letter to some superintendent in a district that prohibits Native students from embracing their culture at graduation.
Traditional regalia, such as an eagle feather, is often given to Native students by family members or other loved ones to celebrate their personal achievements as well as their heritage. “This is a way of showing our cultural identity and our appreciation, our honoring of our Native men or women that are graduating,” said Cournoyer, who is Oglala Sioux.
The traditional Yup’ik headdress Andrew wore at graduation is made of sealskin, beaver and wolf fur and trimmed with black and gold beads. Her mukluks are adorned with a beaded design with splashes of turquoise and pink, based on a pattern her great grandmother created.
“My Yup’ik headdress is important to me since it makes me feel connected to my family and culture,” she said.
Andrew, who will be going to Yale this fall, said that she was often bullied at school for her Native identity. At first she felt ashamed. But as she grew up she began to see her culture, embodied in her Native regalia, as a source of strength.
“For Native students to be proud of their culture, during graduation and beyond in their lives, means resilience,” she said. “It means the government failed in their effort to ‘kill the Indian and save the man’ … Our family ties, cultural ties, ties to our land are strong.”
Preventing Native students from wearing their traditional regalia as they exit the education system reinforces the same messages they’ve often received throughout their education, said Cournoyer.
“You have to look at what the education system is about. And it’s about assimilation. And it’s about acculturation,” she said. “It is not a place that allows us to embrace who we are.”
Across the country, some state lawmakers have begun to respond to the demands of student activists and Native advocacy organizations. In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a lawsuit against the Clovis Unified School District, after officials told graduating senior Christian Titman, a member of the Pit River Tribe, that he could not wear an eagle feather at his commencement. While Titman was eventually allowed to wear the feather after the case was settled out of court, that incident spurred state legislation in 2018 allowing students to wear Native regalia.
But James Ramos, who is the first Native American to serve in the California legislature, doesn’t think the law goes far enough.
He’s introduced a new bill to ensure compliance with the law and establish a taskforce that engages tribes and school districts around the issue. The bill recently passed the state assembly and is on its way to the senate.
Ramos, a member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe and former chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, said that school districts are often unaware of the law or ignore it. “When it comes to California’s First People, we have to educate the educators on what traditional regalia is, and why it should not be questioned,” he said.
California’s 2018 law followed on the heels of similar legislation in Montana, which in 2017 became the first state in the nation to protect Native students’ right to wear regalia. Since then, Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota and Kansas have followed suit. This spring, Arizona and Oregon passed similar laws.
Cournoyer said that state legislation can help local districts craft more inclusive graduation policies. Local officials are often reluctant to change policies prohibiting cultural attire without state guidance, she said.
In 2017, Montana became the first state in the nation to protect Native students’ right to wear regalia
In Anchorage, after Qassataq’s son was denied his right to graduate in his Native regalia, the principal asked Qassataq how the school district could make amends. She asked him to begin advocating on behalf of Native students in multiple ways, including by educating school district staff about students’ right to wear their regalia.
“We need to make sure that that doesn’t happen again,” Qassataq said. “There’s really nothing you can do to make it right. But the very least we can do is make sure this doesn’t happen to any other families.”
Monica Braine, who is Assiniboine and Hunkpapa Lakota, and Sol Traverso, who is of Athabaskan descent, contributed reporting for this story. The photography for this story was supported by a grant from the Education Writers Association.
This story about Native regalia was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.