Wearing Native American Cultural Regalia at Graduation

Posted by on Nov 18, 2021 in People and Culture

High school graduation is a significant event in many peoples’ lives. Many indigenous families and Native American communities like to mark the occasion by wearing items to celebrate their cultural heritage. For example, eagle feathers are often given to graduating students by family members or loved ones to wear to celebrate their accomplishment. However, schools often prevent such personalized additions to graduation outfits. Recently, lawmakers in Utah proposed legislation protecting Native students’ rights to add traditional attire to their graduation ceremonies. Here, btw takes a closer look.

Why Is This Law Needed?

Utah has eight sovereign nations, and there are about 7,200 Native American students across the state. This bill was introduced by State Representative Angela Romero and co-sponsored by State Senator Jani Iwamoto. Rep. Romero said that they were approached by the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, who told them about a Native student who had decorated her graduation cap with bead work and an eagle feather. The high school administration initially allowed this. However, the administration later changed its mind and took her cap away. Native rights advocates argue that these conflicts show a lack of understanding about Native cultures and students they serve. Similar laws protecting the rights of Native students to wear traditional regalia already exist in Arizona and Montana. (Tribal regalia means traditional dress, or wearing tribal symbols, such as beads and feathers or other items of cultural or religious significance.) California has also established a task force that acts as a liaison between tribes and school districts.

What Does the Bill Say?

The Utah bill changes the dress code for high school graduation ceremonies. It says that students can’t be prohibited from wearing tribal regalia by any educational institution. To qualify for this protection, a student must be an enrolled citizen of a tribe or nation or eligible for enrollment.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern that legislation such as this bill will open the door to students wearing whatever they want to their graduation ceremonies. They worry that this could result in disrespectful or distracting outfits. But sponsors of the bill argue that wearing native regalia is a very different matter because it represents that student’s culture and identity.

What Do You Think? Visit your school district’s website to learn more about the dress code for graduation where you live. Based on your district’s policy, if a student in your class wanted to wear tribal regalia, would they be permitted to? Explain.