By SAM METZ and RICK BOWMER
CEDAR CITY, Utah (AP) — She walked down a red carpet and walked through a stage to accept her degree wearing a beaded eagle feather on her cap her mother gave her.
Amryn Tom graduated this week from Cedar City High School in southern Utah. His family cheered.
For the Paiute Indian tribe of Utah and other Native Americans, eagle feathers of the variety Tom wore are sacred objects passed down from generation to generation, used in ceremonies to signify achievement and connection to the community.
“It comes from your ancestry,” Tom said his mother, Charie, told him.
A year ago, students in Tom’s school district were reportedly banned from wearing any form of tribal insignia with their traditional cardinal-colored caps and robes.
Not this year.
In March, Utah joined a growing list of states in enshrining the right of Native American students to wear tribal regalia at their graduation ceremonies.
In Iron County, where the school district tried to ban two graduates from wearing badges at ceremonies last year, Tom and other Native American students relished that hard-earned right.
“It’s kind of huge,” said Paiute tribesman Brailyn Jake, an eagle feather and beads dangling from her turquoise cap. Her cousin was one of the students arrested for wearing beads last year.
“People don’t understand our culture and what it means and how when you’re denied something that big, it’s kind of like, wow,” Jake said.
Students across the United States often sport flower crowns or flashy sashes at graduation with little controversy. But rules governing tribal insignia at high school graduations have become a legislative issue in several red and blue states after reports of students being banned from wearing clothes like Jake and Tom’s.
Arizona, California, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington have all recently enacted laws that enshrine student rights or ban schools from enforce dress codes prohibiting tribal insignia. After passing through the legislature, a bill with similar provisions was sent to Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy.
In Utah, Paiute President Corrina Bow raised the issue with state lawmakers after the two incidents last year in Iron County. The district had no formal rules prohibiting Native American students from wearing badges.
Bow noted that the graduation rate for Native American and Alaska Native students was 74% in 2019, the lowest of any demographic group, and told lawmakers that ensuring students statewide the right to wear insignia would allow them “to honor their culture, their religion and their heritage.”
Similar controversies have taken place in schools in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, suburban Chicago and elsewhere, with graduates barred from wearing everything from beads to moccasins to sealskin caps. The incidents pit Native American students and their parents against administrators who say they want to maintain uniformity at graduation ceremonies.
Emalyce Kee, who is Navajo and Rosebud Sioux, was one of two students from southern Utah who was told not to wear beaded caps or plumes at the college’s graduation ceremony. Cedar City High School last year. She did it anyway.
Before walking across the stage to accept his degree, Kee swapped out his plain cap for one with a plume and beads from his uncle. Half a dozen family members in the front row cheered.
“I had never felt so powerful before that moment, standing with my degree, with my native cap on, and then shaking hands with my principal,” Kee said.
At a high school that used ‘Redmen’ as its mascot until 2019, Kee and his mother, Valerie Glass, said the principal’s way of arguing that beaded caps would set a precedent for all students to decorate their outfits with. of graduation remained faithful to them.
“These are not ‘decorative’ badges. It is a traditional beaded costume. How can you have the Cedar Redmen for so long and not honor your Native American students? said Glass.
Iron County Superintendent Lance Hatch was unavailable for comment.
Hoksila Lakota presented his nephew Elijah James Wiggins, who is of Lakota ancestry, with an eagle feather in honor of his graduation from Cedar City High School on Wednesday. He said eagle feathers – called wamblii wakan in Lakota – are fundamental to celebrating unique achievements, with many believing they have a connection to God.
“It’s not something you find on the ground and just mess around. They are sacred objects given from grandfather to son or from uncle to nephew,” he said.
Metz reported from Salt Lake City.