By SAM METZ and RICK BOWMER – Associated Press
CEDAR CITY, Utah (AP) – She walked up a red carpet and crossed a stage to accept her diploma, wearing an eagle feather on her cap that her mother had given her.
Amryn Tom graduated from Cedar City High School in southern Utah this week. Her family cheered.
For the Paiute Indian tribe of Utah and other Native Americans, eagle feathers of the kind worn by Tom are sacred objects passed down through the generations and used in ceremonies to symbolize achievement and connection with the community.
“It’s from your ancestors,” Tom said to her mother, Charie.
A year ago, students in Tom’s school district would have been banned from wearing any form of tribal regalia besides their traditional cardinal-colored hats and gowns.
In March, Utah joined a growing list of states that enshrined the right for Native American students to wear tribal insignia at their graduation ceremonies.
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In Iron County, where the school district tried last year to ban two graduate students from wearing regalia at ceremonies, Tom and other Native American students enjoyed the hard-fought right.
“It’s kind of huge,” said Brailyn Jake, a member of the Paiute tribe, an eagle feather and beads dangling from her turquoise hat. Her cousin was one of the students who was dissuaded from wearing beads last year.
“People don’t understand our culture, the meaning behind it and how when you get rejected for something that big, it’s kind of like, wow,” Jake said.
Students in the US often wear flower leis or flashy sashes upon graduation without causing controversy. But the rules for tribal insignia on high school graduations have become a legislative problem in several red and blue states after students were reportedly banned from wearing attire like Jake and Tom’s.
Arizona, California, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington have all recently enacted laws that either enshrine student rights or prevent schools from enforcing dress codes that prohibit tribal insignia. After passing through the legislature, a bill with similar provisions was sent to Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy.
In Utah, Paiute Chairwoman Corrina Bow brought the issue before state legislatures after the two incidents in Iron County last year. The district had no formal rules prohibiting Native American students from donning regalia.
Bow pointed out that the graduation rate for Native American and Alaskan Native students was 74% in 2019, the lowest of any demographic, and told lawmakers that ensuring students’ statewide right to wear insignia would allow them would allow “honouring their culture, religion and heritage”. ”
Similar controversy arose at schools in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, a Chicago suburb, and elsewhere, where graduates were banned from wearing everything from beadwork and moccasins to sealskin hats. The incidents have angered Native American students and their parents against administration officials who say they want to maintain consistency at graduation ceremonies.
Emalyce Kee, who is Navajo and Rosebud Sioux, was one of two southern Utah students who were told not to wear a beaded hat or feathers to her graduation from Cedar City High School last year. She did it anyway.
Before walking across the stage to collect her diploma, Kee swapped her plain cap for one with her uncle’s feather and beadwork. Half a dozen family members in the front row applauded.
“I had never felt so empowered before that moment, standing up with my diploma and native cap and then shaking hands with my principal,” Kee said.
At a high school that used “Redmen” as a mascot until 2019, Kee and her mother Valerie Glass said they stuck with it, as the principal had argued beaded caps would set a precedent for all students to decorate their graduation gowns.
“These are not ‘decorative’ insignia. It is traditional pearl insignia. How can you have the Cedar Redmen for so long and not honor your Native American students?” said Glas.
Iron County Superintendent Lance Hatch could not be reached for comment.
Hoksila Lakota gave his nephew Elijah James Wiggins, who is of Lakota ancestry, an eagle feather Wednesday in honor of his graduation from Cedar City High School. He said eagle feathers — called Wamblii Wakan in Lakota — are fundamental to celebrating once-in-a-lifetime achievements, and many believe they have a connection to God.
“You don’t find them on the ground and do anything with them. These are sacred objects given from grandfather to son or uncle to nephew,” he said.
Metz reported from Salt Lake City.
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Indigenous students exercise the right to wear regalia at graduation | lifestyles
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