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A Cultural Rite of Passage for Native Youth and Education

Tribal adornments on graduation garb are as much a right of passage as a golden braid is and new legislation looks to make it so.

High school and college graduations loom just around the corner. This is the progress and milestone of the travels of our cherished young ones ready to take the next step in their journey to adulthood. Whether that is to remain on an academic path and seek higher degrees, enter the work world or perhaps as so many Natives have, volunteer for the military. This is a time of extreme pride for our people as education has always been considered a respected and honorable pursuit.

Despite our experiences with boarding schools, public schools with racist teachers and classmates and a curriculum that lauds Columbus as a discoverer and manifest destiny as an American inalienable right, Natives still value education. It is through education that we will produce the teachers, doctors, lawyers, fishery biologist, foresters and other critical skilled individuals needed to serve our tribes.


Tribal councils all talk the talk of education but we as tribal members must hold them accountable to support education both financially and systemically. Do not allow per capita checks unless there is a diploma or GED. Do not underfund tribal scholarship programs while administrative budgets grow or drive tribal vehicles that members cannot afford. Use tribal housing funds to support college students who struggle to get their degrees.

This time of year also is a time of struggle. All too often, (usually at the last minute), we get word that some ignorant school district in their infinite ethnocentricity deems that Native students are not allowed to wear an eagle feather, beaded regalia or other cultural adornments as part of their graduation garb. They would deny our students the privilege and pride of showing culturally appropriate respect to this ceremony of achievement.

It is our way to laud the accomplishments of individuals with symbols of respectful embellishment. It could be an eagle or hawk feather, a dentalia necklace, basket hat or a beaded mortarboard. These should be considered as marks of academic distinction given by the Native community, perhaps the Title V or JOM Parent committees, to honor the accomplishments of our students. It would be the same as wearing a gold braid for being in the National Honor Society.

This year California has taken the proactive step of offering a legislative resolution to this annual conundrum. Assemblyman Todd Gloria (Tlingit-Haida Tribes of Alaska,) has introduced AB 233 to preserve a students’ right to free speech and cultural expression during commencement ceremonies. This bill is actively supported by the long-time students rights activist organization California Indian Legal Services. Executive Dorothy Alther states

“CILS has been at the forefront of this issue during almost every high school graduation season and has seen firsthand the importance this small accommodation can make to students and their families. Allowing cultural, religious andtraditional adornment on a student’s graduation cap or gown honors not only the student, but honors his or her heritage, tribal family and community.”

CILS partnered with the California State University San Marcos’ Native American Indian Studies and the School of Art, Arts and Technology, to produce a short video capturing the importance of this issue for Native American students and tribes.

Join California in proposing legislation to put this issue to rest. Oregon and Washington have issued letters from their State Superintendents of Education encouraging school districts to make this small allowance for cultural purposes. This is a great start but nothing beats having the power of law on your side. Get your tribal councils to spur their lobbyist and lawyers to get similar bills passed throughout NDN country.

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You can also help out by sending letters of support to pass AB 233. If DAPL can bring thousands of people to the Midwest for a common cause than the needs of our children certainly is meritorious of a letter. If you need additional information please contact Dorothy Alther, at (760) 746-8941, or Jay Petersen at (916) 978-0960,

Your letters of support should be directed to:

Assemblymember Todd Gloria

P.O. Box 942849

Sacramento, CA 94249-0078

Telephone: (916) 319-2078

Fax: (916) 319-2178

Wearing a culturally significant item at momentous occasions is part of who we are. A feather, sash, beaded adornment on a graduation cap and gown or other cultural, religious and traditional regalia is not going to undermine the basic foundation of our educational institutions.

Just my two dentalia’s worth.

Andre Cramblit is a Karuk Tribal member who proudly wore a basket medallion at his college graduation and gifted his son Kyle an eagle feather and plume upon his high school graduation.