Lawmakers considering bill that would let Indigenous students wear Native regalia to graduation

State lawmakers unanimously agreed to consider a bill that would allow Indigenous high school seniors to graduate in Native regalia.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Men, women and children from Native American tribes throughout the West show their regalia during the Grand Entry at the 41st Annual Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah Restoration Gathering, Aug. 13, 2021 in Cedar City, Utah.

Every spring, Native American high school seniors from across Utah add an eagle feather or beads to their cap and gowns or wear cultural attire to celebrate resiliency and heritage at their graduations, a milestone for many Indigenous families.

But, occasionally graduates are told they are not allowed to wear Native regalia.

Rep. Angela Romero has sponsored a bill that would ensure Indigenous students can wear cultural regalia during their high school graduation ceremonies.

At an interim meeting of the Native American Legislative Liaison Committee on Monday, Romero, D-Salt Lake City, asked the committee to adopt her bill so it could be considered during the upcoming legislative session this winter.

She said the bill was inspired by an instance when an Indigenous student was initially given approval to wear some beads and feathers on her graduation cap, only to be told at the last minute she was not allowed to walk with her cultural regalia.

“They took the cap from her,” Romero told the committee. “It was really frustrating for the family, just the different mixed messages.”

The bill, she said, is modeled after similar laws in Arizona and Montana that allow for tribal regalia to be worn during high school graduation ceremonies. Romero said both she and Sen. Jani Iwamoto were approached by the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah to sponsor the proposal.

“A local education agency may not prohibit a qualifying student from wearing tribal regalia during a high school graduation ceremony,” reads draft language, which adds that a qualifying student is one who is enrolled, or eligible to be enrolled, as a citizen of a tribe or nation.

Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, who co-chairs the committee, said she has a Diné (Navajo) granddaughter who graduated in Arizona, and she saw from that graduation celebration the importance of Native regalia during graduation milestones.

“Everyone was decked out,” she said, adding that it is a community investment to celebrate a child’s graduation ceremony. “So, I’m surprised to hear that someone would not allow them something that is part of their culture.”

Romero added that allowing Native students to dress in their cultural attire is different from students deciding to wear shorts under their gowns because the regalia is part of their identity. “This is about who they are in their communities.”

Harold Chuck Foster, a Diné educator who serves as the American Indian Education Specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, told the committee that he supports the bill because it would push Utah to be sensitive to the state’s eight sovereign nations.

“I think this is a very significant move in terms of the preserving of culture,” said Foster, who taught for 16 years in tribal communities before taking a role with the state.

In his report to the committee, Foster said that his office serves approximately 7,200 Native American students across Utah.

The lawmakers unanimously agreed to move the bill to committee for future consideration.

The Native American Legislative Liaison Committee also discussed the issue of Native mascots at Monday’s hearing.

Rep. Elizabeth Weight asked for the committee’s support to begin the legislative process on a bill that would “elevate awareness, education, understanding of Native American tribes in our state.”

Last year, Weight, D-West Valley City, sponsored a resolution that asked schools with Native mascots to consider removing or retiring those mascots. Unlike that bill, which died in the House earlier this year, Weight said the new proposal would allow more education on the topic of retiring or removing Native imagery or symbols as mascots.

“When our group was looking at the resolution from last year, we realized that it was a very different nature and focus than what we want to do this year,” she told the committee, “especially considering the evolution and the occurrences of so many events and situations that have started to notice more awareness of the Native American tribes and culture and peoples’ across the country, but also in our state.”

Romero and Republican Sen. Ronald Winterton encouraged Weight to consult tribes in Utah on her new bill. They said tribes may agree on one issue but could disagree on others, including the topic of retiring and removing Native images or symbols as mascots.

Rep. Rex Shipp, a Cedar City Republican who’d previously sponsored a failed resolution in 2020 that discouraged removing names, symbols and images of Native Americans from public places, encouraged Weight to work locally with school districts and local Indigenous communities.

“In some ways, I think we are sweeping the Native Americans under the rug when you say you need to take these names away because I think a lot of people think it’s an honor,” Shipp said. “And a lot of Native Americans themselves think it’s an honor to have those names. So I think we need to really focus more on the local people.”