Student was asked to remove painted cap for ceremony
Flathead High School issued an apology after a Flathead High School graduate of Blackfeet descent was prevented from wearing a cap with a Native American headdress and striped motif painted on the mortarboard at the June 2 commencement ceremony.
The incident arose because of a conflict between the school’s long-time dress code for the ceremony and a brand-new state law.
Although 17-year-old Zephrey Holloway was allowed to wear an eagle feather, he was given an unadorned black cap to wear instead of the cap his grandmother, Blackfeet artist Valentina LaPier, had painted.
This was despite Holloway showing administrators a screen shot of Senate Bill 319 on his phone. Senate Bill 319, signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock on April 21, prohibits a state agency — such as a school — or local government from “prohibiting an individual from wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at certain public events …”
“It kind of hurts not being able to display that cultural pride,” Holloway said. But as he was moments away from the ceremony and without another adult to advocate for him, he said he did not want to push the point in fear of not being able to participate. “There wasn’t a debate on the eagle feather. I told them I was wearing it regardless.”
Holloway’s mother, Muriel Winnier, said she and her son were given the graduation dress-code policy well in advance of the ceremony and weren’t going to decorate the cap — until they learned about Senate Bill 319 and assumed it would be upheld over school policy.
A graduation informational bulletin posted to the high school’s website outlined dress expectations prior to the commencement ceremony specifying that “no tape, glitter, leis, bouquets, or any other adornments are allowed on the caps or gowns.”
Flathead High School Principal Peter Fusaro said students have been allowed to wear tribal regalia such as Holloway’s eagle feather, but that painted caps had previously not been permitted.
In his statement, Fusaro wrote: “As part of our 2017 graduation ceremony, a student was allowed to display an eagle feather as part of his graduation attire. The same student was not permitted to wear a cap that included culturally significant artwork expressing their indigenous heritage. The application of this provision in this situation was in error. The School District and administration of Flathead High School regret the misapplication of this policy and has extended apologies to the student, their family, and their grandmother, who painted the cap. Although school administrators were generally aware of SB 319 prior to commencement exercises, the school district has taken steps to ensure that Montana law authorizing expressions of indigenous heritage is honored fully in the future.”
In an interview prior to releasing his statement, Fusaro said the incident will likely mean revising the school’s policies on dress requirements regarding graduation.
Wearing regalia is the way Native Americans honor important events and milestones.
“There are certain things we believe give us strength,” Winnier said.
Winnier said she’s supported the school for four years and put hesitations aside regarding the school’s Braves/Bravettes mascot.
“I was shocked with a school [that has] Native American mascots wouldn’t let a native child wear his cap,” Winnier said in an interview prior to the release of Fusaro’s statement.
AS TO what specifically constitutes or defines “traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance,” that was intentionally left open to broad interpretation, according to Montana Sen. Jan Gross, a Democrat from Billings, who was the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 319, “for the fact that it’s very difficult to define ‘cultural.’ Culture is unique to each individual.”
Does this mean schools will have to decide what constitutes traditional tribal regalia or items of cultural significance?
“That’s something we are grappling with now as this incident has gained a lot of attention,” Gross said.
Notifying schools on the new law is something Gross wants to address.
“Our hope is that we can work with the Office of Public Instruction at the very least to send notifications to schools, or any public entity, that this is the law,” Gross said.
The legislation came out of a series of community meetings and conversations with organizations such as the social-justice nonprofit Western Native Voice. What repeatedly emerged from these conversations was that Native American students wanted to express their native culture and heritage, Gross said.
While the law emphasizes tribal regalia, questions may be raised over whether the language that describes “objects of cultural significance” could also include controversial symbols such as Confederate flags, under the scope of the law.
“It opens up a lot of conversation. I hope it does open wider, respectful, conversations where we can have some dialogue,” Gross said.
Moving forward, Holloway said his hope is that all schools learn about the law and that when it’s time for his siblings to graduate there isn’t a similar conflict.
After descriptions of the event were posted on social media, Winnier said she’s gotten support and some backlash.
“We’re not trying to be activists. [We’re] not here to prove a point. All we really want is the school to acknowledge what happened and to apologize, mostly to my son and my mother,” Winnier said prior to the school’s apology.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or email@example.com.
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