Colorado would guarantee the right of Native American students to wear items such as eagle feathers and other traditional clothing at graduation ceremonies through a bill under consideration this year.
Federal law protects Native American religious and cultural rights. But students sometimes run into issues or find flat-out prohibition at schools when it comes to wearing regalia at ceremonies, advocates say. They say families must then fight to make districts aware of the importance of traditional clothing. Or students running into a lack of understanding might choose to skip graduation ceremonies altogether.
Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said she’s heard of school officials telling students they have to hide, remove, or even throw away regalia because of policies that maintain uniformity at graduations. She said some students have even reported school officials touched or confiscated students’ eagle feathers, a cultural and religious symbol.
“This bill clarifies for the school that you do not interfere with this,” Danielson said. “You cannot harass these students and prevent them from wearing their traditional regalia.”
Schools asking Native American students to remove or throw away items is like a school asking a student to get rid of a Jewish or Christian symbol, said Melvin Baker, Southern Ute Tribal Council chairman, during a Monday hearing.
He added that the United States has a history of trying to erase Native American culture, and the bill would ensure students get to honor their identity and their achievement.
“Tribal regalia plays a unique role for graduating native Native students,” Baker said. “These items are often gifted to students by parents or tribal elders in recognition of this achievement.”
The Native American Rights Fund receives many calls every spring from families across the country looking for support on how to ensure they can wear regalia at graduation ceremonies, said Matthew Campbell, the organization’s deputy director. It’s been a few years since he fielded a call from Colorado families, but he said families do sometimes run into trouble with schools.
“Usually, when we reach out to the schools and explain the importance of these items — once they understand — they usually will allow them to be worn,” Campbell said.
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In recent years, some states have added teachings about Native American religion and culture. Other changes that try to create more respect toward Native American culture have happened, including a law Colorado passed last year that bans Native American mascots.
Colorado would join eight other states in ensuring Native American students can wear traditional regalia.
Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Longmont Democrat co-sponsoring the legislation, said the goal is to make sure that every Colorado district understands.
The bill defines qualifying students as members of a tribe, eligible tribal members, or those of Native American descent. The bill says that immediate family members would also be allowed to wear traditional Native American dress during their students’ graduation ceremony.
Speakers at a Senate Education Committee hearing said traditional dress might include clothing, bracelets, necklaces, or eagle feathers. The bill needs a final vote in the Senate before heading to the House.
The bill doesn’t say how schools will ensure students have the right to wear traditional items, Jaquez Lewis said.
“We leave the details up to the school districts and the schools but what we do in this bill is we set guardrails,” she said.
Some districts have started to create policies.
Cherry Creek School District has created a ceremony for Native American students and is working on graduation ceremony policies, said Aspen Rendon, a partner with the district’s department of equity, culture, and community engagement. The district also has an indigenous action committee working toward creating a more inclusive district, Rendon said.
Jeffrey Chavez, the district’s indigenous and native student community liaison, said it’s important to recognize native traditions, especially in urban districts like Cherry Creek. Ensuring students get to wear their regalia at ceremonies helps carry on traditions.
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“That’s how we honor ourselves and our community and family with those traditions,” he said.
Indigenous action committee member Donna Chrisjohn said a principal didn’t allow her son in 2020 to wear Native American regalia at his graduation ceremony. Her son ended up not participating in the ceremony.
She is glad the district is changing and happy to have helped make lawmakers aware of the issue.
“This is so impactful for all families to know that someone will not push back when their child decides that they want to show up as who they really are,” Chrisjohn said. “That’s a huge step in the right direction.”
Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.