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2017-06-15 / Voices

Traditions are Important For Graduates


Many young people have completed the education goals they’ve set for themselves. Over the past month, social media sites were full of photographs posted by proud parents, grandparents and other extended family members. When you live in an area where the drop-out rate is high, it’s encouraging to know many students do actually work hard to complete their education.

Graduation day is a once in a lifetime event. It’s a time you’ll always remember. The congratulatory hugs, handshakes, monetary and other gifts are memories we cherish for the rest of our lives. Yet, some students had their big day ruined by unreasonable policies set by rigid administrations.

For instance, many high school graduates in our local area had their mortarboards decorated for the big day. Students recruited family members or other artists to help make their graduation caps unique. Pictures of the finished mortarboards were also shared by the artist or student on social media.

Some of the graduation caps featured elaborate beaded designs. There was one picture posted on Facebook which featured a quilled mortarboard, the owner was a Pine Ridge High School graduate. These are beautiful pieces of art that the students will likely cherish for the rest of their lives. We appreciate our local tribal and public schools which allow students to decorate their graduation clothes with designs meaningful to them and their family.

But not all high school students were allowed to wear their tribally decorated mortarboard. One student had the mortarboard taken away right before the commencement exercises. Others across the country were told they would not be able to participate with their classmates if they chose to wear graduation garb decorated with tribal designs.

For example, Zephrey Holloway, a citizen of the Blackfeet tribe, was not allowed to wear a mortarboard painted by his grandmother even though Montana law allowed him to do so. Senate Bill 319 was approved in April 2017 and is “An Act prohibiting a state agency or local government from prohibiting an individual from wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at certain public events.”

Holloway, who graduated from Flathead High School in Kalispell, MT on June 2, was not allowed to wear the decorated cap because of student dress code constraints. He did wear an eagle feather that belonged to his great-grandfather, a Korean War Veteran.

According to NBC Montana, high school principal Peter Fusaro called Holloway to personally apologize for the incident and issued a public statement to the media. An excerpt of Fusaro’s statement reads:

As part of our 2017 graduation ceremony, a student was allowed to display an eagle feather as part of his graduation attire. The same student was not permitted to wear a cap that included culturally significant artwork expressing their indigenous heritage. This decision was based on a graduation provision that does not permit students to use “tape, glitter, leis, bouquets, or any other adornments” on their caps and gowns. The application of this provision in this situation was in error.

There were several other tribal students across the country who were not allowed to wear their decorated mortarboards during commencement exercises. Public school policies are often insensitive to the cultural norms of tribal students. School officials claim it is school tradition for students to wear the standard cap and gown for graduation.

Public schools often fail to recognize the importance of the traditions of tribal students. The traditions of tribal people existed long before the creation of public school systems in this country. In fact, our traditions have carried us through 525 years of encroachment by the wasicu.

Consequently, it has always been about assimilation. School officials have tried to force tribal students into a wasicu approved model ever since the boarding school days. Their model still isn’t working for us. They would do well to just accept us and our cultural norms, instead of trying to mold us into something we are not.

Family members spent many hours fashioning the mortarboard for their student. There are prayers which go into creating the design on the mortarboard. The symbols often reflect important aspects of tiospaye history. The designs are medicine gifted to a student to mark an important achievement and to help them to succeed in life.

Many tribal graduates had one of the most important days of their lives ruined by rigid school officials who cared more about following policy than celebrating student achievement. All we can do is continue trying to educate the wasicu about the importance of our culture. The day we stop trying to educate the wasicu about the importance of our culture, will be a day when we submit to assimilation.

Vi Waln is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and is nationally published journalist.

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