Another aunt had called the school and said she had obtained permission to add the decorations to the cap — a traditional way for Native American students to express their spirituality and cultural pride, Cervantes said.
“But when I got on stage I was told to take it off,” Cervantes said, adding that she was the only one in her class to graduate without a cap after refusing a single offered to her. .
“Everyone was watching live because I had to take it off, and when I got back to my seat I was crying,” she added. “It ruined my graduation day.”
Principal Dennis Heaton said sacred eagle feathers were permitted on graduation tassels, but beadwork was not permitted on caps.
“There may have been a misunderstanding,” Heaton told The Washington Post in an interview. “Since I became an administrator, we have not allowed students to put anything on their caps because things had been put on them that were inappropriate.”
“Politics wasn’t about Native Americans — it was about having some control over what people could put on their caps,” Heaton said, adding that until last year it had never mattered. was a problem in high school.
Cervantes, now 19, said she wanted to make sure what happened to her didn’t happen to her younger sister, Taina Cervantes, who is currently in second grade, when she graduates.
She and her family contacted the Iron County School District to express their dismay, and were told the district did not control local graduation ceremonies, Cervantes said.
Then they told what happened to the Paiute Tribe President, Corrina Bow.
Bow convinced two Utah state officials to sponsor a bill this year giving Native American students the right to wear tribal insignia and other items of cultural and spiritual significance when entering high school and other events.
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Last month, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed into law HB30, making it illegal to prevent Indigenous students from wearing cultural insignia at school ceremonies.
Utah now joins states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, Oregon, Minnesota, Washington, South Dakota and North Dakota in legalizing the practice.
“Over the years, I had heard of student tribesmen who had been prevented from decorating their caps in honor of their heritage,” Bow, 61, said, noting that her own granddaughter n Nor was she allowed to wear any badges on her. graduation cap.
“I knew it was time to really push for a change,” she said.
The high school graduation rate has long been lower for Native American students, Bow said, citing a 2020 study that shows Native teens are two to three times more likely to drop out of school than their white peers.
“Since so many of them don’t stay in school, why penalize them when they do?” she says. “Decorating their caps and allowing them to celebrate their heritage helps make graduation something special for them.”
Bow reached out to Utah lawmakers Rep. Angela Romero (D) and Sen. Jani Iwamoto (D), who sponsored a bill calling for statewide policy change.
Their bill passed unanimously, ensuring that Native American students in Utah can now wear feathers, arrowheads, beads and other items related to their cultural heritage during graduation. from high school.
“For Indigenous communities, it’s not just about insignia — it also has a symbolic and spiritual element,” Romero from Salt Lake City said.
“It’s about their families and it’s a matter of honor and respect,” she said. “No Indigenous student should face barriers to honoring their culture and spirituality.”
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Bow said decorating a cap with beads and eagle feathers has become more popular in recent years.
“Graduation is a big deal and decorating caps is a way to show appreciation for heritage and family,” she said, adding that Native American milestones have long been celebrated by wearing special badges. .
For Cervantes, the bill signing she attended with her family on April 14 helped ease the disappointment she felt last year.
“I’m glad it helps another person because I definitely put a damper on my own celebration,” she said.
Across town at Cedar City High School, Emalyce Kee also learned last year that she couldn’t wear a graduation cap that had been adorned with gold beads by her uncle.
“They said I couldn’t be different from other kids,” she said.
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Kee, who is Diné (Navajo) and Rosebud Sioux, said she thought the rule was unfair, so she hid her decorative cap under her graduation gown and put it on at the last minute to receive her diploma.
“People were allowed to wear leis to graduation, but I wasn’t allowed to have a beaded cap and an eagle feather? It was offensive to me,” said 19-year-old Kee.
“We were proud of her for standing up for herself and wearing the cap anyway,” said her mother, Valerie Glass. “She wanted to walk with her classmates in honor.”
There were no repercussions after her daughter switched hats, she said.
“She shook hands with the principal and graduated, and there was nothing they could do — the whole town was watching,” Glass said.
Kee High School has a controversial history regarding Native American students, she said, noting that since the early 1940s the school’s mascot had been the Redmen. When tribesmen lobbied for a change, the name was changed to the Reds in 2019.
Lance Hatch, superintendent of the Iron County School District, said he was happy to know now that tribal badges are allowed.
“In the past, there was no real policy – it was just up to each individual school,” Hatch said, adding that leis still looked good to wear.
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Hatch said the district has 12,531 students, 290 of whom are Native Americans, including 17 seniors.
It’s a small group, but Bow said she thinks the majority will graduate later this month.
“They can certainly be proud when they march with their classmates this year and wear their badges to honor where they come from,” she said.
“It’s wonderful to see that the path is now set for our students moving forward. »
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