Native students allowed to don cultural items at graduation

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — When Andrew Mike prepared to graduate from Willamette High School this spring, his mother decorated his mortarboard with intricate beading and he tied an eagle feather his grandmother gave him onto his cap.

Mike is an enrolled citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, and is also Shoshone Paiute and Winnebago. Donning these items means not only representing a large part of himself, but also his larger community.

House Bill 2052, passed in May, permits American Indian and Alaska Native high school graduates to wear tribal regalia and other cultural items during their graduation ceremonies. While many schools in Oregon allowed students to wear these items before the bill, some did not.

The Bethel School District already allowed students to wear these items, Equity Director Tina Gutierrez-Schmich told the Register-Guard, but said it was exciting for the state reinforce it.

It also meant a lot to Mike, who said he graduated with four other Native American students.

“It was definitely cool to wear my eagle feather out and my beaded cap because I know my mother wasn’t able to do that,” he said. “It’s crazy that it wasn’t allowed back then, because (the traditions) have been on this land for thousands of years, and our traditional practices are very important to us as people.”

Brenda Brainard, a member of the Confederated Tribe of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, ran Eugene School District’s Natives Program until retiring this year after nearly 30 years.

She said she most appreciates the clear yet broad inclusion of allowing students to wear “cultural items” and that the expectation is now the same for schools across the board.

“It’s ordinary now. It’s common. It’s the law,” Brainard said.