Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Indigenous celebration cut by Farmington Schools as protective laws fail yet again • Source New Mexico

Technology has a way of showing us that with all its advancement, so much remains the same.

Doom-scrolling through social media posts about local news, the NBA playoffs and garden hacks, my algorithm eventually brought forward a cellphone video showing someone from Farmington Municipal Schools approaching graduate Genesis White Bull to take her beaded graduation cap with her aópazan affixed to the top.

What happens next is out of the frame. Moments later and back on camera, the district employee returns with a plain, new cap, and the aópazan — a Lakota term for a plume or feather worn in the hair — is gone. 

Everyone has an opinion on what should or shouldn’t have happened. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that White Bull and her mother said the school employee cut her aópazan, a direct attack on the culture they brought to the Four Corners from the Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

And what comes next is unclear. 

The school district issued an apology but won’t comment on anything else around the incident, including whether it conducted training on a 2021  state law that some say should have prevented the policy the district wielded to cause harm on a day that should have been a celebration. Instead, it appears the district is preparing for what others are discussing as White Bull’s first course of action: a lawsuit to allege her school district violated her civil rights.

We’ll have to wait to see how that goes.

Another question we’ll have to sit with some patience on: Will legislators amend that law when they meet at the Roundhouse next year? Because everyone — from the lawmakers who drafted it to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to the Navajo Nation president — is calling for greater protections for students. 

Indian Affairs Secretary Josett Monette and others are saying that more specific language could be added to the current law to make it stronger. (The issue won’t make the special session in July. We asked.)

The statute does have specific language to prevent a local district from creating rules or policies that could discriminate “against any student based on their race or culture with respect to their hairstyle or headdress.”

The legislative intent, sponsors say, was to prevent what White Bull experienced at her graduation.

Why didn’t the law protect White Bull?

No one seems to know, and at last check, there doesn’t appear to be any legal review by attorneys who work for the state government. Neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the Governor’s Office have indicated they have legal counsel investigating whether a state law was violated. Legislative intent doesn’t always prove a strong defense before a judge.

Navajo Nation First Lady Jasmine Blackwater Nygren had experience with a similar law while serving as an Arizona state representative. She said the Arizona version of the law specifies that this type of protection is for people enrolled in a Native American tribe and offers more specific language around what are considered cultural items.

While this approach makes the Arizona law stronger, it should bring caution for how Indigeneity is legislated. Just about every instance of how Native people and their governments exist in this country is restricted in some type of federal law. Language, housing, medical services, education, elections and economic policies — it is all outlined and debated in the black-and-white text of U.S. law books.

And yet, we still have instances where a young Lakota person about to enter their adult life, marking a crowning achievement, is harassed by people who think culling Indigenous culture to enforce a colonial standard of conformity is a reasonable approach in education.

Genesis White Bull deserves more than an apology. Since technology brought us yet another instance of a border town’s hostility toward the Native American people living there, let’s make sure we do more than just scroll, share and witness.

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