Native students fight to wear traditional regalia at graduation

By: | June 16, 2021

Eighteen-year-old Nyché Andrew stepped on stage to take the podium in front of her classmates and their families on an overcast afternoon last month. “We would like to take this moment to acknowledge the Dena’ina Athabascan people and the wisdom that has allowed them to steward the land on which Anchorage and Service High School reside,” the high school senior said.

It was a moment she’d been waiting for since her freshman year — not just to graduate from high school, but also to wear her traditional Yup’ik headdress and mukluks. As a 10th grader, Andrew, who is Yup’ik and Iñupiaq, testified in front of the Anchorage school board, advocating for Alaska Native and American Indian students’ right to wear their traditional regalia. That year, 2019, the district changed its policies to allow Indigenous students to wear cultural items along with their caps and gowns.

Schools have a long history of policing Native students’ graduation attire, often citing longstanding policies that all students must look alike and that deviations from the standard cap and gown are distracting. And even in school districts like Anchorage that have recently enacted policies allowing Native students to wear regalia, implementation has been uneven due to a lack of understanding of Native history and ways of life, advocates say. They argue that the practice of policing Indigenous students’ graduation attire is symptomatic of an education system woefully ignorant of, and insensitive to, Native culture.

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