Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Indigenous students are allowed to wear cultural insignia upon graduation

Cultural regalia include topknots, carpet dresses, woven sashes, moccasins, beadwork, and turquoise jewelry, including bracelets, belts, and necklaces.

New Mexico has no similar law.

A few 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 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 and hidden for most of the ceremony.

Harvey fiddled with the spring and struggled to loosen it.

The pumpkin blossom necklace is a widely recognized style of jewelry worn by the Navajo and other indigenous tribes of the Southwest. (Photo from the National Museum of the American Indian)

“They tried to take it away from me,” she recalls. “I told them, ‘No, I’ll hold on to it.'”

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.

Lourdes Pereira stands next to Governor Doug Ducey on September 1 as he signs House Law 2705, which prevents schools from banning Aboriginal clothing upon graduation. Pereira helped change the Tucson Unified School District policy three years ago that required special permission for such insignia to be displayed. (Courtesy photo of Lourdes Pereira)

“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.

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