Until April 21, schools across Montana had the ability to prohibit Native American students from wearing traditional regalia and eagle feathers at graduations. Stories of Native students having to strip their caps of beads before being able to walk proudly at their own graduations are not uncommon in Big Sky Country.
But with the recent signing of SB 319 by Gov. Steve Bullock, government agencies and schools are effectively prohibited from creating policies that bar Native American students from wearing items of cultural significance at public events.
“SB 319 allows for us to showcase a part of our Native American culture, and take pride in the fact that as Native American students we have accomplished a huge milestone in life,” Georgeline Moresette, a Billings (Montana) West High School senior, said in a press release.
A cohort of Native high school students from across the state attended and testified at the Montana House of Representatives in Helena in April. The vote carried 67-33, furthering “the state’s recognition of the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and the state’s commitment to preserving the American Indians’ cultural integrity.
The bill was introduced by Montana Democratic Sen. Jen Gross. “High school graduation is a rite of passage, and Montana students from diverse backgrounds will now have the ability to show pride in their accomplishment. I’m thrilled the Legislature recognizes the significance of allowing our Native youth to express their cultural identity in meaningful ways in time for graduation this year.”
Western Native Voice, a non-profit, non-partisan social justice organization, held meetings last summer where the idea for the bill originated. “After learning that rules around traditional regalia and other objects of cultural significance were being inconsistency implemented across the state, Western Native Voice worked with Indian Caucus Members, Sen. Gross and Native leaders to craft and introduce legislation to clarify and set a clearer standard across all communities,” the organization said in a release.
Montana’s new bill is just the latest in the saga of American Indian graduation regalia around the country. In 2015, a California high school senior sued his school for the ability to wear an eagle feather at graduation.
“In this day and age, this is still a surprise,” Matthew Campbell, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, told the Billings Gazette. “Part of it is the lack of understanding about how important these items are.”
Five years ago, Aspen Many Hides (Blackfeet/Turtle Mountain Chippewa) was forced by her Polson High School principal to remove beads from her cap or she couldn’t walk.”
“Minutes before we were walking, one of my friends’ moms was ripping out the beadwork,” Many Hides recalls. “I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t a student be able to represent who they are at graduation?’”
Many Hides is now a Salish Kootenai College student who will graduate with a teaching degree this year. She was so elated about the bill’s passage she’s had a friend start on a beaded cap, moccasins and a ribbon skirt. “I’m gonna go all out,” she said.
She’s also looking forward to the Native American students she will teach to have the ability to express their culture at public ceremonies with their regalia. “I know the students I’m teaching are going to be able to represent who they are at graduation and that’s really great,” she said. “If I’m able to show who I am when I’m graduating it’s a pretty big deal. You got your whole family there, your extended family. It’s time for celebration.”
Cary Rosenbaum (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a correspondent for Indian Country Media Network. Follow him on Twitter: @caryrosenbaum.