Washington set to become 5th state that allows Native American regalia at graduation

By Félix Pérez

Native American students in Washington who want to wear tribal regalia at their graduation ceremonies should be heartened by two recent actions, one by the state legislature and the other by the state superintendent of public instruction.

The state House of Representatives, on a 95-1 vote, passed a bill Feb. 12 that “expressly acknowledges that students in public schools and institutions of higher education may wear traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at graduation ceremonies and related events.” Currently, local school districts can prohibit Native American regalia, such as feathers and beaded caps.

The state Senate passed the bill, 48-1, March 3. The bill was delivered to the governor for his signature March 9.

Rep. Debra Lekanoff said she introduced the House bill after listening to a young man who is “the first graduate coming out of high school in his family and getting ready to go to college. He wanted to share a bit of his heritage, to have his ancestors walk with him. For us,” said Lekanoff, only the second female tribal member to serve in the House, “our tribal regalia is the voices of our ancestors and the children yet to come.”

“Ceremonies are an important part of our culture. It’s shocking when I read about places not allowing regalia.”

– Stephanie Ervin
Member of the Colville Confederated Tribes
Spokane, Wash.

The activity in the state legislature comes shortly after the state superintendent of public instruction sent a letter to local school district leaders on the topic. “I want to . . . encourage all public and private high schools to adopt policies that allow for and honor this form of cultural expression in their commencement ceremonies and other public events. . . It is important to recognize that, since time immemorial, many tribal nations have viewed the wearing of traditional regalia and items of cultural significance, such as eagle feathers, cedar, beadwork, and other items as sacred to cultural traditions.”

Stephanie Ervin, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and a middle school secretary in Spokane, Wash., said, “Ceremonies are an important part of our culture. It’s shocking when I read about places not allowing regalia. It not only honors us for our achievement, it’s how we honor who we are and our victory over genocide. It’s a way of saying we’re still here and we’re still warriors.”

An article titled “Right to Regalia: Let Those Feathers Fly” stated that graduation season serves as a yearly reminder of the scrutiny given to Native American regalia. “Prohibiting students from expressing their Native American identities, both in the past and present, should raise concern. Not only are Native students limited in cultural expression at commencement ceremonies, school curricula are so geared toward a colonized version of history that Native students are constantly surrounded by a society that pushes Indigenous cultures and history aside.”

Ervin, who grew up on a reservation and whose extended family helped make her graduation regalia, said “celebrating culture should be welcomed by schools. Any time we feel empowered to express ourselves is a victory for the ones who came before us.” The Spokane school district has allowed students to wear regalia for two decades.

If Washington is successful in enacting a law, it will join four other states: Kansas (2018), Montana (2017), North Dakota (2019) and South Dakota (2018). California added language to its education code in 2018 stipulating that a “pupil may wear traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment at school graduation ceremonies.”