Before the law passed, some schools prohibited regalia at graduations, contributing to systemic limits on cultural expression.
PHOENIX – Just minutes before her high school graduation in Gallup, New Mexico, three years ago, Dakotah Harvey was told to remove the eagle feather from her mortarboard or she would be escorted out of the ceremony and her diploma would be withheld.
Her grandfather had tied the feather to the cap’s tassel earlier that day, Harvey told Cronkite News. He loaned it to her after performing a Navajo prayer in celebration of her achievement.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell him I couldn’t wear it,” Harvey said.
To Navajos and many other Indigenous peoples, the feather of an eagle is an important and sacred component of many ceremonies and blessings.
In April, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation that public schools cannot prohibit Indigenous students from “wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at a graduation ceremony.” The bill specifically includes eagle feathers or eagle plumes.
Cultural regalia includes hair buns, rug dresses, woven sashes, moccasins, beadwork and turquoise jewelry, including bracelets, belts and necklaces.
New Mexico does not have a similar law.
A few weeks before Harvey’s graduation from Hiroshi Miyamura High School, officials issued a graduation dress code that banned cultural dress or regalia that was not concealed by the graduation gown. The cap also couldn’t be adorned in any way, which included tying anything to the tassel.
Students were allowed to wear moccasins, sashes, jewelry or other items, but only if they were underneath the gown, concealed for the majority of the ceremony.
Harvey fumbled with the feather and struggled to untie it.
“They were trying to take it from me,” she recalled. “I told them ‘No, I’m going to hold on to it.’”
She placed the feather between her dress and gown and brought it back out when the ceremony’s prayer in English, Navajo and Spanish began. She carried the feather in full display when she walked onstage to accept her diploma – even receiving a compliment on the feather from the school’s namesake himself, Korean War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Hiroshi Miyamura.
Representatives from Gallup-McKinley County Schools did not respond to a request for comment.
The Arizona bill, House Bill 2705, was introduced in early 2021 by Rep. Arlando Teller, D-Chinle, who later resigned from the Legislature to work for the U.S. Department of Transportation. The bill was championed by Rep. Jasmin Blackwater-Nygren, D-Red Mesa, a fellow Navajo, and passed in April.
At the Capitol on Sept. 1, Lourdes Pereira, who is Hia-Ced O’odham and Miss Indigenous Arizona State University for 2020-21, stood at Ducey’s side as he signed legislation that included HB 2705.
In 2018, Pereira and fellow Pueblo High School graduate Maddy Jeans, who is Navajo, Pascua Yaqui and Otoe, successfully fought to change Tucson Unified School District policy to allow Indigenous students to wear cultural regalia at graduation. Previously, special permission was required.
Similar laws exist in California and Montana, and Utah lawmakers recently introduced similar legislation.
“Graduation is a milestone and is a ceremony,” said Jolyana Begay-Kroupa, Phoenix Indian Center director of development and Navajo language professor at Arizona State University.
The use of feathers and other cultural regalia is important to many tribes in celebrating significant points in life, she said, and it serves as a reminder to everyone that “we’re still here.”
Begay-Kroupa hopes the new law will prompt discussions that lead to better understanding between cultures.
Harvey, who’s now studying at ASU, wished more students and parents had advocated for a better, more inclusive graduation dress code.
“I think at the time we were just like, ‘You know what, we’re almost done with high school, we’re going to suck it up through the ceremony and just get through it and then we’re booking it out of here,’” she said.
Such rules and policies can make it more difficult to celebrate milestones in culturally relevant ways within schools and make it harder to be Indigenous, especially for those living near towns bordering reservations.
Gallup is outside the southeastern border of the Navajo Nation Reservation in New Mexico and serves as a hub for commerce and education, which much of the reservation lacks.
Other Navajo Nation border towns are Flagstaff and Holbrook, as well as Farmington, New Mexico.
A life of commuting from the city to the reservation is common around these towns, which can have stark cultural differences.
“I know a lot of kids who struggled with trying to be a city kid, or a suburban kid, or a Native kid and they would struggle back and forth,” Harvey said.
Harvey hopes New Mexico adopts a similar law, which would support freer cultural expression and alleviate some of those struggles. She doesn’t want her younger siblings to endure what she did when they walk across the graduation stage.