Native grads receive state support regarding attire

04.13.2017 Brent Merrill Culture, Education, State Government

Oregon’s Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Salam Noor recently sent a letter to Oregon school districts encouraging them to work with Tribes and Tribal students to allow Native students to wear cultural items at graduation.

“High school graduation is a time of great excitement for students, families and our communities as a whole,” Noor wrote in his letter dated March 31. “As we celebrate with our communities and pay tribute to the hard work and achievements of our students, I encourage you to put policies in place that facilitate ceremonies that are culturally inclusive and reflect and honor the diversity of our students and families.”

Noor said in the letter, which was the second letter he has sent this year to Oregon schools on the subject, that the state Department of Education values the government-to-government process between state and local governments and Tribes.

“We encourage you to examine your local policies and explore ways for students to honor their heritage, this includes allowing for non-disruptive expressions of Native American culture at commencement ceremonies,” Noor wrote in the second letter. “We fully support policies allowing students to outwardly wear items that honor their unique cultures.”

Indian Education Adviser to the Deputy Superintendent April Campbell said the reason for the letter is that Oregon doesn’t have a written policy on what students can wear during graduation ceremonies.

“It’s all up to local control,” Campbell said. “Typically every year we get phone calls from parents or students concerned that they were told that they were not able to wear regalia or eagle feathers. So for the last few years since we don’t have an official state policy, Dr. Noor and his predecessor, Rob Sexton, have sent these letters out as a reminder for the districts to encourage them to hopefully do some outreach as well as look at their internal policies and make any adjustments needed.”

Campbell said the reason for the state’s stance in allowing for expression of a student’s heritage and culture is simple from an educational point of view -- they are trying to encourage students to go to school and be successful.

Campbell also said they want students to be able to celebrate their educational achievements.

“We have a hard enough time just getting a student to that milestone in their life,” Campbell said. “We know we have the highest dropout rate of all ethnicities and so allowing a student to celebrate, I think that is really important. This is a ceremony and it’s allowing students to embrace who they are during that milestone.”

Campbell said the policy is for all students.

“You wouldn’t tell a student they couldn’t wear a necklace with a cross on it,” Campbell said. “This is really no different for me.”

Tribal Education Department Manager Leslie Riggs said he wishes people didn’t have to have the same discussion on the subject year after year.

“I’m disappointed every time we have to rehash the same arguments,” Riggs said. “I think anybody graduating from any school should be able to decorate their mortar boards or their cap and gown, and we have a first amendment right to free speech.”

Riggs said when he graduated from the University of Oregon with honors in Eugene that he loved looking out over the crowd and seeing the diversity of the graduates.

“There were ethnicities from all over the world,” Riggs said of that milestone in his life. “It was fantastic and I thought it was just wonderful. I learned a lot.”

Sheridan School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Sugg said the issue hasn’t come up in the three graduation ceremonies that he has been a part of since becoming superintendent.

“If something came up we would certainly work with the student and the Tribe to figure out a way to make sure everybody is happy and felt supported,” Sugg said. “”Our kids decorate their mortar boards. They decorate those however they want because we don’t have any set criteria.”

Willamina School District Superintendent Carrie Zimbrick said that she also loves it when she witnesses all the graduates and sees the diversity of her district’s students. Willamina’s enrollment is approximately one-third Native American, many of those students are Grand Ronde members or descendants.

“Looking out at our ceremony that is what I think makes it unique and special and something we can all be proud of,” Zimbrick said. “We are recognizing that diversity and allowing students to make it their own. Graduation is about the kids and what the kids want to make it for themselves.”

Zimbrick said Noor’s message was one of encouragement and acceptance.

“It’s a ceremony,” Zimbrick said. “I think students should be able to make that ceremony personal for them. I believe as a district we recognize that and appreciate that as well. I think it makes our graduation that much more special when students can put their own personal stamp on that ceremony and I think it’s important as a community to recognize that and allow for that.”