Navajo Leaders Express Outrage Over Graduation Incident Involving Student’s Tribal Regalia

Graduation time is usually a moment of joy for students who successfully complete their academic programs.

For certain Indigenous students, celebrating this achievement includes incorporating traditional tribal attire or culturally significant items into their graduation apparel.

Indigenous students in Arizona benefit from state protections. In 2021, former Gov. Doug Ducey approved House Bill 2705, which prohibits public schools from prohibiting Indigenous students from wearing their traditional tribal regalia or culturally significant objects during graduation ceremonies.

Although not all states have comparable laws safeguarding Indigenous students, New Mexico legislators enacted measures to prevent incidents like the one currently under scrutiny in Farmington, New Mexico.

“On May 13, Genesis White Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, was asked to stand during the national anthem with her graduating class at the Farmington High School graduation ceremony when two unidentified school staff members approached her to confiscate her cap.”

A video shared on social media depicted White Bull being directed to remove her graduation cap, adorned with an eagle plume and beadwork along the edges.

Brenda White Bull, Genesis’ mother, conveyed the incident to the Navajo Nation Council, disclosing that school officials proceeded to cut the plume from her daughter’s cap with scissors.

The Navajo Nation Council, in a press release, underscored Brenda’s emphasis on the sacred significance of the plume, symbolizing achievement and cultural identity in Genesis’ journey into new life phases.

Despite attempts by the Arizona Mirror to reach out to the family for comment, they did not respond before the publishing deadline.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley denounced Farmington High School’s actions as “belittling, humiliating, and demeaning to the student and her family,” calling for an apology from school officials.

According to the statement released by Farmington Municipal Schools on May 15, during the event, a student’s beaded cap was substituted for a plain one. The feather was returned to the family intact during the ceremony, and the beaded cap was reinstated after graduation.

The school’s policies, as per the 2023-2024 Student and Parent Handbook, do not allow modifications to graduation caps and gowns. However, students are allowed to choose their attire, including traditional garb beneath the graduation cap and gown, regalia, stoles, and feathers in their tassels.

Although the involved staff followed district regulations, Farmington Municipal Schools recognized the need for a different and improved approach, committing to refine their processes at the school level.

Farmington Municipal Schools has pledged to explore policies permitting additional culturally appropriate elements in student attire, especially since Indigenous students make up about 34% of the district’s population.

“There is no room for this behavior in our educational systems,” Curley stated in response to Farmington High School’s actions. “The school officials owe an apology to the student and her family.”

“New Mexico adopted an anti-discrimination law in 2021, which may offer students protection against the Farmington schools’ district policy, although the legal pathways remain uncertain,”

“Sen. Harold Pope (D-Albuquerque), a co-sponsor of the law, explained that the legislation derived from the national Crown Act initiative aimed at ending discriminatory policies regarding hair texture, with a strong focus on African Americans.”

“In contrast to other states, New Mexico tailored its version to encompass Native American cultures prevalent in the state, with co-sponsors representing Dińe and Jemez Pueblo.”

“Although the law’s support for White Bull’s potential legal recourse against the Farmington Municipal Schools is unclear at this time,”

‘A Heartbreaking Incident’

“Footage of White Bull’s graduation incident circulated on social media, eliciting widespread support from Indigenous communities nationwide.”

“Navajo Nation leaders expressed solidarity with White Bull, urging schools to respect an Indigenous student’s right to wear regalia during graduation ceremonies, labeling any denial as a violation of their rights.”

““It was a heartbreaking incident,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Crotty, reflecting on being informed of the student’s experience.”

“Crotty emphasized that high school graduations should be joyous occasions, and White Bull’s experience was marred by the confiscation of something so meaningful to her.”

“The incident prompted an official report to the Nation Human Rights Commission to investigate potential discrimination in border towns.”

“Having faced documented racism against Indigenous individuals in Farmington, where the tragedy of the 1974 murders of four Navajo men occurred, Navajo and other Indigenous peoples protested against the city’s pervasive bigotry.”

“In light of historical and contemporary injustices against Indigenous people in Farmington, Crotty underscored the need for a more inclusive approach by institutions like Farmington High School.”

““Understanding how Native students identify and celebrate themselves is imperative,” said Crotty, urging for a proactive stance on cultural sensitivity to prevent such incidents.”

“The protection of cultural identity for all Native American students, as outlined in the New Mexico Indian Education Act, was emphasized by Crotty in condemning the violation of the student’s rights.”

“While New Mexico’s 2021 law targets local school districts on graduation attire policies, it doesn’t grant the New Mexico Public Education Department authority to issue statewide mandates on such matters, leaving the responsibility to individual school districts.”

“Dr. Arsenio Romero, Public Education Secretary for New Mexico, extended his support to White Bull, stressing that local districts like Farmington must reconsider their graduation protocols.”

“Regarding the incident, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham denounced the reprimand of a student for expressing cultural pride during a celebratory moment, signaling a need for greater inclusivity and understanding.”

“Navajo Nation First Lady Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren voiced solidarity with Indigenous graduates and their choice to wear traditional regalia during commencement, highlighting the pride and historical significance embedded in these choices.”

“Blackwater-Nygren, who had been unaware of the incident until after the graduation, expressed hope that lessons can be learned and corrective actions taken by schools like Farmington High.”

“For many Indigenous students, graduation attire transcends mere clothing choices, representing a reflection of their journey, identity, and ancestral resilience.”

“Drawing from her experiences, Blackwater-Nygren reiterated the importance of empowering Native students to uphold cultural traditions at significant life milestones like graduations.”

“As a proponent of cultural respect, Blackwater-Nygren advocated for schools nationwide to honor and support Native students’ choices in wearing traditional regalia during graduation ceremonies.”

“Blackwater-Nygren’s involvement in news resolutions to support Native students during graduation stresses the importance of cultural sensitivity and recognition within educational settings.”

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