OLYMPIA – Native American students would be able to wear tribal regalia and items of cultural significance at their graduation ceremonies under two bills moving through the Legislature.
Some school districts in Washington don’t allow students to wear any kind of decorations on their gown and caps, said Sen. John McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes who supports the bill.
“This is a rite of passage and they want to be able to be identified as Native American when they’re going through that passage,” he said.
House and Senate committees both passed bills Friday prohibiting public schools and universities from preventing Native American students from wearing tribal regalia.
Sienna Reed, co-chairwoman of the Native American Student Union at Western Washington University, told the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee that for many Native people tribal regalia is a form of resilience and resistance, and honors ancestors who had to repress their cultural.
“This bill would allow us to celebrate in our own ways and help repair the relationship between indigenous people and the educational system,” she said.
Native American students have the highest dropout rates in the country, so graduation is a big reason to celebrate, she said.
“We all hope to celebrate our graduations by wearing our tribal regalia,” Reed said.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, was amended to allow objects of cultural significance to be worn, without requiring them to be attached or worn with the cap and gown. The bill would also take effect immediately once it’s passed.
Passing the bill would “acknowledge the significant relationship between our state and tribal governments, and respect the unique cultural heritage of Native Americans living in our state,” Lekanoff, D-Bow, said.
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, was concerned the bill was so ambiguous that students might be able to wear tribal regalia in place of a cap and gown. Staff for the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee said that could be subject to interpretation by school officials.
Sen. Andy Billig, who sponsored the Senate bill, said a member of the Spokane Tribe brought him concerns that some students in the state were not allowed to wear their traditional regalia at graduation.
“We proceeded to write a bill to protect Native Americans’ right to cultural expression during their graduation ceremonies,” Billig, D-Spokane, said.
Spokane Public Schools has long allowed students to wear items of cultural significance at graduation, he said.
Shawn Jordan, director of secondary schools for Spokane Public Schools, said 20 years ago schools in the district began receiving requests to allow students to wear accessories and some schools began to have more conversations about inclusivity.
Every high school in the district now allows students to wear accessories that are reflective and significant to their culture, he said.
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