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New Chapter in the Same Story for Native American Graduates

Another graduation season, another story about Native American graduates and their mortarboard regalia causing “disruptions,” even after the passage of SB 319 in Montana.

Blackfeet descendent Zephrey Holloway, 17, made his family very proud on the day he walked across the stage to get his new diploma from Flathead High School in Kalispell, Montana. He was given an eagle feather passed down from his great-great grandfather and his grandmother, Blackfeet artist Valentina LaPier, decorated the top of his mortarboard.

The young graduate walked right into a story about Indian kids who make it to graduation that recycles every graduation season for many Native American graduates. He was allowed to wear the eagle feather—something that has been denied in some states and some school districts—but the school drew the line at the artwork and required him to wear a plain black mortarboard.

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Before the ceremony began, he showed an administrator a screenshot of Senate Bill 319, a bill that had been passed and signed by the governor and was the law of Montana for 42 days. The operative language of SB 319 is simple and direct:

A state agency or a local government may not prohibit an individual from wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at a public event.

Providing a strong undercurrent of irony, Holloway’s mother, Muriel Winnier, told the Daily Inter Lake that she had supported Flathead High School despite “hesitations” she felt because of the school’s mascot. FHS calls its teams the “Braves” and the “Bravettes.”

“I was shocked,” Winnier said, “with a school (that has) Native American mascots wouldn’t let a Native child wear his cap.” She explained, belatedly, that wearing hand-crafted regalia is a customary way to honor important events and milestones.

After her remarks, Flathead High School Principal Peter Fusaro released a public statement of apology:

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… The School District and administration of Flathead High School regret the misapplication of (school) policy and has extended apologies to the student, their family, and their grandmother, who painted the cap. Although school administrators were generally aware of SB 319 prior to commencement exercises, the school district has taken steps to ensure that Montana law authorizing expressions of indigenous heritage is honored fully in the future.

Back when SB 319 was voted out of committee, Clint Valandra, who works in Indian education in Billings, told the Missoula Current:

When they want to bead their caps… I tell them they can’t. They’re very upset. They don’t know why. “Who’s it going to hurt?” they ask. And I tell them it’s against policy.

That four years in high school that student and that family generates, it goes through all of them, the whole family members back at the reservation, that that cap was taken away.

SB 319 did not pass without controversy. Rachel Crowspreadingwings did a broadcast of the back and forth on KFBB, broadcasting from Great Falls. The sponsor, Sen. Jen Gross, claimed that the purpose “…is to promote and preserve Montana’s unique cultural heritage of the Native American population.”

To the objection that the proposal elevated Native American culture above other cultures, Gross responded that Native American culture is given special status in the Montana constitution.

The Montana law was only 42 days old when Zephrey Holloway had his grandmother’s gift removed from his graduation ceremony. Perhaps when the word gets around, this story will not originate in Montana next year, but it comes around every graduation season and tribal communities do notice. ICMN was put on the scent of this latest outrage by Char-Koosta News, the voice of the Flathead Nation.

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Every time this story recycles, I am reminded of a poem I wrote based on something I found in a newspaper on a flight from Albuquerque to El Paso many years ago. The poem has published several times, the last in my book, Wicked Dew. The event really happened in 1997 but it could have happened this graduation season or any graduation season between then and now.

And they wonder why Native American students sometimes express feeling unwelcome in public schools? The quote is direct from the newspaper, but I imagined the details.

Disruption, Spring 1997

“An Albuquerque school board has refused to allow an Indian girl to graduate in a traditional shawl handmade by her grandmother, citing ‘disruption’ of the ceremonies…”

The speakers droned on in English

and her mind wandered.

She caressed the bundle absentmindedly

as if to stroke one last time

the cloth she had labored over for so many nights

after cleaning the rooms at the motel.

She smiled at her cleverness.

She had taken the silver concho belt

that had belonged to her man and his father before.

Having no male children or grandchildren

she let the trader

cut it to fit a woman’s waist,

leaving some room

for the fullness to come in the years beyond eighteen.

Her man had been large,

from a clan of large men,

and the excess silver from his belt

bought the fine cloth and bright threads

and her fingers did the rest.

It was not her tribal custom

to speak the names of the dead

but she saw in her mind’s eye

his smiling face

shining with pride in his granddaughter

and pride in his wife.

Jolted to attention

by the calling of her granddaughter’s English name,

she moved like a dark shadow

through the white throng

clutching the contraband to her chest with both hands

and as the dark-eyed Indian girl stepped from the stage

the grandmother, greatly daring,

opened the shawl with the bright colors

and the thousands of tiny stitches

and the perfect fringe

and threw it over the shoulders of the girl who stood,

first in her family,

holding her diploma.

The police were called

and order was quickly restored.