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Native law group says graduates planning to wear tribal regalia should review school policies

This is a headshot of a Native American male student who is posing in a red gown and cap, with an eagle feather hanging near the tassel.
Courtesy Of Native American Rights Fund
Coy-a-dee (Water Boy) Salomon, a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, and also of Apache and Kiowa descent, wears a feather on his graduation cap in Longmont, Colorado. He is a 2023 graduate of Skyline High School.

As high school and college students plan for their graduations, some Native students in the Mountain West and beyond could face resistance for wanting to wear tribal regalia with their caps and gowns.

For Native communities, an eagle feather is a symbol of wisdom and strength, and given in times of great honor, like a graduation.

Every spring, however, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) hears from multiple students who were not allowed to wear an eagle feather or other tribal regalia, said Morgan Saunders, a staff attorney with the Colorado-based law group.

Saunder said parents often break down in tears when they discuss their child being denied their tribal identity.

“For many families, the wearing of the eagle feather is more important than the diploma,” Saunders said. “Because it's something that's given at this important time in their child's life – they’re transitioning, often, into adulthood.”

According to the Native American Rights Fund, 14 states have laws to protect Native students’ right to wear religious and cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies. In recent years, several Mountain West states have passed legislation protecting that right.

In 2023, Nevada and Colorado each passed a law that allows students to wear tribal, religious or cultural regalia for graduations. Colorado’s legislation dictates that a student must be registered with a tribe or have a Native relative. Similar laws were established in Utah in 2022 and in Arizona in 2021.

Saunders said families in states without those protections should review their school district’s policies, and request dress code accommodations as early as possible.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.

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