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Indian Graduates: Wear Your Feathers Proudly

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Big kudos to Montana legislators and to the Indian activists who have known how to educate people in power about the importance of education that emphasizes the Indian heritage of their state. Kudos also to the National Indian Education Association and columnist Jode Rave, and all the others who are encouraging American Indian graduates this season to proudly wear their feathers and their tribal or clan insignia as they desire.

This one is important. In this age of denying the beauty and depth of all cultures, there are many people who still would erase the ancient ways and the identity of Native peoples. They would do so in the name of assimilation and Americanism, and they would call it patriotism. But they would be wrong. Culturally, at its best, America is a mosaic of diverse cultures striving freely toward universal justice, not a marching platoon of ditto heads.

Some 600,000 young Indians are primary and secondary students. They know who they are and no one has the right to deny their cultural expression. Count us among those who encourage the young graduates to signal who they are, to be proud to wear their tribal colors. It not only makes the ancestors happy; it gives much-needed strength to the new generation of Native adolescents, who look to their older brothers and sisters for a path to follow.

Those who would deny or argue against the right of Indian graduates should consider that the march of graduates every season comes at both ends of Memorial Day weekend, where the many American Legions throughout Indian country parade their colors proudly and are praised and memorialized by their tribal relatives.

In Memorial Day parades this year throughout Indian country, communities came out en masse, lining up on both sides of the roads with children, grandparents and American flags to pay heartfelt and familiar respects to the communityís fallen and living veterans. The annual ritual ñ full of laughter, thrown candy and humorous floats ñ evidences the strong connections to the nationís military that is uniformly valued in Indian country.

Nevertheless, among the veterans, here and there, many wore their feathers. In scenes replicated in many parts of Indian country, veterans paraded with personal feathers and feather staffs and shields and other items of specific tribal traditions and there is nothing un-American about it. It is in fact the basis for the right, not only of parading Indian veterans, but of parading Indian graduates to represent their peoples in their moment of honor.

Education is key, and the best education includes a strong dose of cultural knowledge, self-awareness and critical thinking. This is the pillar upon which the future of Indian communities and nations will be built. It is the only possible dream-satisfying future for America.

Writes NIEA President Ryan Wilson: ìMy excitement and pride in honoring our graduates is tempered by the reality that, once again, our graduates will encounter misguided administrators who will confront expressions of cultural identity over the issue of wearing eagle feathers and plumes in their caps or mortarboards.

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ìOur use of eagle feathers and plumes as sacred articles of honor and accomplishment predate the use of cap/mortarboard and gown by thousands of years. We must continue to wear our feathers; as original inhabitants of these lands, we must continue to express ourselves in this manner. We need to do so without fear, but with conviction. We should do so without having to hide our articles of tradition and without anxiety about wearing them. Our First Amendment rights will continue to be violated so long as we allow others to do so. To all Native students and families I implore you: Do Not Ask For Permission. Wear your plumes. Wear your feathers on graduation day. This is your day, your time and you need to express yourself and honor your family, your elders, and your ancestors by carrying on our way of life.î

In a similar current, Indian Country Todayís David Melmer reports [in ìMontana prepares to implement unique ëIndian Education for allí law,î Vol. 25, Iss. 49] on a meaningful and, hopefully, replicable Montana law designed to tackle the problems that interracial and intercultural ignorance can cause. Called the ìIndian Education for Allî law, it mandates the integration of materials on Indian history and culture into other disciplines of Montana schools, from kindergarten through the 12th grade. As Melmer reminds us, even today, Montanaís seven reservations and 12 tribal nations are a mystery to most state residents, who can hardly identify, much less understand, their Indian neighbors.

The Montana Legislature passed the ìIndian Education for Allî law in 1999 to encourage its citizens to recognize the distinct arid unique cultural heritage of American Indian nations. The law commits the stateís education system to assist the preservation of that heritage and to teach all children in Montana about it. But it was finally late last year that the state Legislature appropriated $4.4 million in finding to implement the law. (The core funding is likely to attract as much as $20 million more in grant incentives.) As Melmer reports, under the direction of the stateís Office of Public Instruction, the full-scale Indian education program will be integrated into public instruction in the 2006 ñ í07 school year.

ìReady-to-Goî grants from the OPI have begun funding numerous teachers to attend workshops and seminars on Indian culture, history and government. Forty teachers from the Billings School District, the stateís largest and located close to the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, participated in professional training arranged with the Little Big Horn, the Crow and Dull Knife tribal colleges on the Northern Cheyenne reservation and with the Western Heritage Center in Billings.

The new program, hailed as a first of its kind in the nation, has Indian educators and many others excited. There are large gaps of basic knowledge about American Indian culture among teachers generally and many, though not all, are enthusiastic in learning and teaching from a stronger context. While the new law does not mandate a specific curriculum, it does set standards. Most schools are planning some American Indian themes in their programs and the state has prepared a five-year plan for implementation.

The goal is to integrate American Indian education into all curricula, from reading, art, music, science and physical education to the social sciences and other aspects of school life.

Denise Juneau, director of Indian education for the state of Montana, recognizes that a lot of painstaking education of non-Native teachers will be required. Indian people, particularly Indian educators and culture-bearing elders, will be much needed. While the initiative has the force of the state constitution, a court case and now a state mandate, it will take the art of persuasion and large doses of good-minded creativity to implement it most fully and with the most positive results.

Big kudos to Montana legislators and to the Indian activists who have known how to educate people in power about the importance of education that emphasizes the Indian heritage of their state. Kudos also to the National Indian Education Association and columnist Jode Rave, and all the others who are encouraging American Indian graduates this season to proudly wear their feathers and their tribal or clan insignia as they desire.This one is important. In this age of denying the beauty and depth of all cultures, there are many people who still would erase the ancient ways and the identity of Native peoples. They would do so in the name of assimilation and Americanism, and they would call it patriotism. But they would be wrong. Culturally, at its best, America is a mosaic of diverse cultures striving freely toward universal justice, not a marching platoon of ditto heads.Some 600,000 young Indians are primary and secondary students. They know who they are and no one has the right to deny their cultural expression. Count us among those who encourage the young graduates to signal who they are, to be proud to wear their tribal colors. It not only makes the ancestors happy; it gives much-needed strength to the new generation of Native adolescents, who look to their older brothers and sisters for a path to follow.Those who would deny or argue against the right of Indian graduates should consider that the march of graduates every season comes at both ends of Memorial Day weekend, where the many American Legions throughout Indian country parade their colors proudly and are praised and memorialized by their tribal relatives.In Memorial Day parades this year throughout Indian country, communities came out en masse, lining up on both sides of the roads with children, grandparents and American flags to pay heartfelt and familiar respects to the communityís fallen and living veterans. The annual ritual ñ full of laughter, thrown candy and humorous floats ñ evidences the strong connections to the nationís military that is uniformly valued in Indian country.Nevertheless, among the veterans, here and there, many wore their feathers. In scenes replicated in many parts of Indian country, veterans paraded with personal feathers and feather staffs and shields and other items of specific tribal traditions and there is nothing un-American about it. It is in fact the basis for the right, not only of parading Indian veterans, but of parading Indian graduates to represent their peoples in their moment of honor.Education is key, and the best education includes a strong dose of cultural knowledge, self-awareness and critical thinking. This is the pillar upon which the future of Indian communities and nations will be built. It is the only possible dream-satisfying future for America.Writes NIEA President Ryan Wilson: ìMy excitement and pride in honoring our graduates is tempered by the reality that, once again, our graduates will encounter misguided administrators who will confront expressions of cultural identity over the issue of wearing eagle feathers and plumes in their caps or mortarboards.ìOur use of eagle feathers and plumes as sacred articles of honor and accomplishment predate the use of cap/mortarboard and gown by thousands of years. We must continue to wear our feathers; as original inhabitants of these lands, we must continue to express ourselves in this manner. We need to do so without fear, but with conviction. We should do so without having to hide our articles of tradition and without anxiety about wearing them. Our First Amendment rights will continue to be violated so long as we allow others to do so. To all Native students and families I implore you: Do Not Ask For Permission. Wear your plumes. Wear your feathers on graduation day. This is your day, your time and you need to express yourself and honor your family, your elders, and your ancestors by carrying on our way of life.îIn a similar current, Indian Country Todayís David Melmer reports [in ìMontana prepares to implement unique ëIndian Education for allí law,î Vol. 25, Iss. 49] on a meaningful and, hopefully, replicable Montana law designed to tackle the problems that interracial and intercultural ignorance can cause. Called the ìIndian Education for Allî law, it mandates the integration of materials on Indian history and culture into other disciplines of Montana schools, from kindergarten through the 12th grade. As Melmer reminds us, even today, Montanaís seven reservations and 12 tribal nations are a mystery to most state residents, who can hardly identify, much less understand, their Indian neighbors.The Montana Legislature passed the ìIndian Education for Allî law in 1999 to encourage its citizens to recognize the distinct arid unique cultural heritage of American Indian nations. The law commits the stateís education system to assist the preservation of that heritage and to teach all children in Montana about it. But it was finally late last year that the state Legislature appropriated $4.4 million in finding to implement the law. (The core funding is likely to attract as much as $20 million more in grant incentives.) As Melmer reports, under the direction of the stateís Office of Public Instruction, the full-scale Indian education program will be integrated into public instruction in the 2006 ñ í07 school year.ìReady-to-Goî grants from the OPI have begun funding numerous teachers to attend workshops and seminars on Indian culture, history and government. Forty teachers from the Billings School District, the stateís largest and located close to the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, participated in professional training arranged with the Little Big Horn, the Crow and Dull Knife tribal colleges on the Northern Cheyenne reservation and with the Western Heritage Center in Billings.The new program, hailed as a first of its kind in the nation, has Indian educators and many others excited. There are large gaps of basic knowledge about American Indian culture among teachers generally and many, though not all, are enthusiastic in learning and teaching from a stronger context. While the new law does not mandate a specific curriculum, it does set standards. Most schools are planning some American Indian themes in their programs and the state has prepared a five-year plan for implementation.The goal is to integrate American Indian education into all curricula, from reading, art, music, science and physical education to the social sciences and other aspects of school life.Denise Juneau, director of Indian education for the state of Montana, recognizes that a lot of painstaking education of non-Native teachers will be required. Indian people, particularly Indian educators and culture-bearing elders, will be much needed. While the initiative has the force of the state constitution, a court case and now a state mandate, it will take the art of persuasion and large doses of good-minded creativity to implement it most fully and with the most positive results.