Just minutes before graduating from high school in Gallup, New Mexico three years ago, Dakotah Harvey was told to remove the eagle feather from her mortarboard or she would be escorted out of the ceremony and her diploma withheld.
Her grandfather tied the feather to the hat’s tassel earlier that day, Harvey told Cronkite News. He loaned it to her after performing a Navajo prayer in celebration of her achievement.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell him I can’t wear it,” said Harvey.
For Navajos and many other indigenous peoples, an eagle’s feather is an important and sacred part of many ceremonies and blessings.
In April, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a law that would prohibit public schools from prohibiting Indigenous students from “wearing traditional tribal insignia or items of cultural significance at graduation ceremonies.” The invoice includes in particular eagle feathers or eagle feathers.
Cultural regalia include topknots, carpet dresses, woven sashes, moccasins, beadwork, and turquoise jewelry, including bracelets, belts, and necklaces.
New Mexico has no similar law.
Several weeks before Harvey’s graduation from Hiroshi Miyamura High School, officials issued a graduation dress code that banned cultural attire or insignia that was not obscured by the graduation gown. The hat was also not allowed to be decorated in any way, which also included tying something to the tassel.
Students were allowed to wear moccasins, sashes, jewelry, or other items, but only if they were under the dress, which was hidden for most of the ceremony.
Harvey fiddled with the spring and struggled to loosen it.
“They tried to take it away from me,” she recalls. “I told them, ‘No, I’ll hold on to it.'”
Dakotah Harvey, center, poses with parents Sharee Keedo and Henry Crump at the 2018 graduation ceremony at Hiroshi Miyamura High School in Gallup, New Mexico. Harvey wore a traditional Navajo dress and eagle feather during the ceremony. Photo courtesy Dakotah Harvey.
She put the feather between the gown and the gown and took it out again as the prayer of the ceremony began in English, Navajo, and Spanish. She wore the nib in all its glory when she went on stage to take her diploma – and even received a compliment for the nib from the school’s namesake himself, Korean War veteran and honorary medalist Hiroshi Miyamura.
Gallup-McKinley County Schools officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The Arizona bill, House Bill 2705, was tabled in early 2021 by MP Arlando Teller, D-Chinle, who later stepped down from the legislature to work for the U.S. Department of Transportation. The bill was championed by Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, D-Red Mesa, another Navajo, and passed in April.
In the Capitol on September 1, Lourdes Pereira, Hia-Ced O’odham, and Miss Indigenous Arizona State University stood by Ducey’s side for 2020-21 as he signed law that included HB 2705.
In 2018, Pereira and her Pueblo High School graduate Maddy Jeans, Navajo, Pascua Yaqui, and Otoe successfully campaigned to change Tucson Unified School District guidelines to allow Indigenous students to wear cultural insignia upon graduation. Previously, a special permit was required.
Similar laws exist in California and Montana, and Utah lawmakers recently introduced similar laws.
“Graduation is a milestone and a ceremony,” said Jolyana Begay-Kroupa, Phoenix Indian Center development director and Navajo language professor at Arizona State University.
The use of feathers and other cultural insignia is important for many tribes to celebrate important points in life, she said, and it is a reminder to everyone that “we are still here”.
Begay-Kroupa hopes the new law will spark discussions that will lead to better understanding between cultures.
Harvey, now a student at ASU, wishes more students and parents had advocated a better, more inclusive dress code for graduation.
“I think at the time we were just like, ‘You know what, we’re almost through high school, we’re going to suck it through the ceremony and just get through it and then we’ll book it out.'” Here, “” she said.
Regalia allows for greater cultural expression
Such rules and guidelines can make it more difficult to celebrate milestones in a culturally relevant way in schools and make it more difficult to be indigenous, especially for those who live near reserve-border cities.
Located just outside the southeastern border of the Navajo Nation Reservation in New Mexico, Gallup serves as a hub for trade and education that much of the reserve lacks.
Other border towns in the Navajo Nation include Flagstaff and Holbrook and Farmington, New Mexico.
A life of commuting from the city to the reserve is common in these cities, which can have strong cultural differences.
“I know a lot of kids who have struggled with being a city kid, a suburban kid, or a local kid and they struggled back and forth,” said Harvey.
Harvey hopes New Mexico will pass similar law that would encourage free cultural expression and alleviate some of these struggles. She doesn’t want her younger siblings to endure what she did when they crossed the stage.