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State Superintendent encouraging schools to allow tribal regalia

Feathers at Pawhuska High School on display as what to wear to dance verus events such as graduation. (KTUL){p}{/p}
Feathers at Pawhuska High School on display as what to wear to dance verus events such as graduation. (KTUL)

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In a recent letter from Oklahoma State Superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, to superintendents across Oklahoma, she writes she "strongly encourages" school districts to examine tribal regalia policies with graduation ceremonies coming up.

In the past, some Oklahoma public school districts have caused controversy by not allowing Native American students to wear it.

Pawhuska Public Schools Title XI Indian Education Director Sharon Forte said that usually half of graduating seniors at Pawhuska is affiliated with one or more tribes.

To these students, beads, feathers, and designs are worn as badges of honor.

"These students have reached a milestone and reached a goal," Forte said, "This is one of the ways that in our culture that we honor our children."

Forte works to educate her students on the culture of Oklahoma's 39 federally recognized tribes and beyond.

She's pushed to help folks understand the significance behind the regalia.

"As long as the student is appropriate, we don't discriminate," Forte said. "If you're wanting all these kids in the same uniform, same color, walk in a straight line, that's exactly what the boarding schools encouraged."

Hofmeister is encouraging schools to allow students to wear the colors and treasures with pride.

"Our American Indian students value a number of items that pay homage to their cultural heritage," Hofmeister wrote in the letter.

"This is beyond just a decorated item," Forte said about a feather. "This is very encouraging for your family, it's very encouraging for students."

Sapulpa Public Schools was the center of controversy in 2016 when a graduating senior wanted to wear traditional Navajo moccasins to the ceremony.

When she was denied, she fought and eventually won.

Today, the school is under a different superintendent, Robert Armstrong, who said the school respects the right of any student to wear Native American regalia at graduation.

Students must put the request in to the Indian Education Director.

Other districts have similar and different policies.

Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller said it's allowed by request.

Jenks Public Schools said Native American students are granted permission to wear regalia. Broken Arrow Public Schools did not respond to NewsChannel 8's inquiry on its policies.

Union Public Schools said it would have to check on what its policies are and get back to us.

Tulsa Public Schools said Native American students make up 10 percent of the student body:

We recognize the importance of allowing students to celebrate their tribal, cultural, and religious identity/heritage when participating in their high school graduation ceremonies. We also recognize the importance of maintaining standards of decorum for the ceremonies. All students must wear the cap and gown customarily worn by all graduating students at their school. A graduating student may adorn their cap with traditional objects of tribal regalia, including feathers and recognized objects of cultural heritage or religious significance, and may also adorn their gown by adding a sash/cord that signifies tribal, religious, or cultural heritage.

Forte said that some of the regalia is not intended to be covered up.

"If you're putting a gown and a cap over that, then you're not honoring what that person was representing," Forte said.

When asked if other cultures should be allowed to add touches of their heritage to the pomp and circumstance, Forte said absolutely.

In Hofmeister's letter she writes:

The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) recommends that those districts required to conduct tribal consultation pursuant to ESSA (20 U.S.C. 7918) reserve time in this year’s consultation to discuss policies in relation to American Indian students wearing eagle feathers and other culturally significant Native regalia to graduation ceremonies and similar events. For districts not required to conduct such consultations, a policy discussion with local tribal leaders and community members is strongly encouraged.


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