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Amelia Schafer
Special to ICT

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — The eagle feather Nimkii Curley added to his graduation cap was a gift to honor his Indigenous ancestors.

But instead of walking across the stage with other graduates at Evanston Township High School near Chicago in May, Curley was sent home before the ceremony began because the feather violated school rules.


On Wednesday, Nov. 16, he joined more than 50 members of Chicago’s Native community who marched into the Illinois Capitol for the inaugural Native American Summit, to support legislation allowing the use of regalia at graduation ceremonies and other issues important to Indigenous communities.

“My grandfather is a boarding school survivor, and my dad never had the chance to finish high school,” Curley said Wednesday during a news conference at the capitol building.

“I was going to be the one to have a traditional high school graduation,” said Curley, Diné and Ojibwe, who now attends the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “I was going to be the one to break that cycle. But that will have to be for the next male generation of my family.”

Nimkii Curley, Diné and Ojibwe, center, speaks at a press conference at the Illinois State Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, at a Native American Summit aimed at drawing attention to Indigenous issues in the state. Curley was not allowed to participate in his graduation ceremony in May 2022 because he had an eagle feather on his graduation cap. Curley's mother, Megan Bang, Ojibwe, second from right in green shirt, also spoke about her son's experience and the harmful effects of Native mascots. The summit was organized by the Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative (Photo by Amelia Schafer for ICT)

The summit was led by the Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative, a grassroots organization made up of more than a dozen Indigenous organizations in Chicago, including the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Mitchell Museum.

The group traveled more than 200 miles to speak out on behalf of the 280,000 Native people living in Illinois. Some got up as early as 3 a.m. to make their voices heard.

The group held a drum performance on the steps of the capitol rotunda with jingle dancers and grass dancers. A large crowd gathered for the four songs.

“As the original peoples of this land, we are stepping up to engage with our elected officials to address issues of critical importance to our American Indian community here in Illinois,” Andrew Johnson, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and executive director of the Native American Chamber of Commerce of Illinois said at the capitol.

“We are part of a vibrant community that was here in the beginning, are here today, and will be here for time immemorial.”

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A new bill filed with the clerk on Nov. 17, House Bill 4222, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Aaron M. Ortiz, who is non-Native, would protect students' rights to wear culturally significant items at graduation ceremonies in accordance with the Illinois Human Rights Act.

The bill states that “a school uniform or dress code policy adopted by a school board or local school council shall not prohibit the right of a student to wear or accessorize graduation attire with items associated with the student's cultural or ethnic identity or any protected characteristic or category identified in the Illinois Human Rights Act.”

Curley said the feather and other items were given to him.

“The things that were given to me, they weren’t jewelry,” Curley said. “They honored my ancestors.”

He said the bill is not just aimed at helping Native students.

“What we’re trying to do today is not just for Native people, but for all minority students so that their cultural identity and academic identity don’t have to remain separate,” he said.

Coalition members also spoke out about the use of Native mascots, changing the way that Native education and history are taught in schools, increased support for urban Natives, renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Curley’s mother, Megan Bang, spoke of the mental and emotional impact on students seeing Native mascots featured in schools more than Native history.

“They have a Chicago Blackhawks flag hanging in their school but no actual education on who Chief Black Hawk was,” Bang said.

Afterward, several members met personally with state representatives to speak face-to-face about the issues.

CAICC officials said they hope this is the first of many summits to draw attention to Indigenous issues.

“It was a great demonstration of coalition in our community,” said CAICC board president Jasmine Gurneau, Menominee and Oneida. “CAICC created a pathway for community members and families to share our personal stories and experiences and advocate for issues that are important to us. I think legislators came away with a better understanding and see the importance of our perspective and representation so that we could effectively create positive change.” 

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