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Mary Cathryn Ricker

Minnesota education commissioner: Allow American Indian regalia at graduations

BEMIDJI — As graduation season gets underway, Minnesota’s commissioner of education urged school districts to recognize American Indian students’ ability to wear culturally significant regalia to their commencement ceremonies.

“I would like to share with you the opportunity to deepen your relationships with our sovereign tribal nations and their self-identified students by recognizing the ability of American Indian students to wear items of cultural and traditional significance, such as eagle feathers, beaded caps, tribal insignias and stoles, in commencement and recognition celebrations and ceremonies,” Mary Cathryn Ricker, the Minnesota Department of Education commissioner, wrote in an April 22 letter to superintendents and other district leaders.

“Please review your policies, connect with the sovereign tribal nations near you, and review with them ways to recognize and honor tribal traditions and practices, " she continued. "Many Minnesota districts also have an American Indian Parent Advisory Committee that will be able to provide you with valuable insight regarding your policies.”

Ricker said she supports American Indian students’ right to practice and express their cultural, traditional and religious beliefs, and her letter pointed to a section in the state constitution and a statute that offer legal protection for religious practices in the state.

Dress codes are created and enforced on a district-by-district basis, and it’s unlikely that the commissioner has the authority to order them to adopt a specific policy, according to staff at the Minnesota Department of Education.

Bemidji Area Schools’ code, for instance, prohibits head coverings, but makes an exception for those worn for religious purposes.

American Indian students have beaded the edges of their graduation caps, attached a feather to them, and have worn moccasins or leggings — sometimes beaded, sometimes not — to graduation, according to staff at Bemidji High School.

Other U.S. schools, though, have prohibited American Indian students from wearing culturally important items to their graduations.

School officials in Oklahoma this year told an American Indian student he couldn’t wear a tribal honor cord, plus a beaded cap and a feather, to graduation, according to Yahoo! News. The student and his family are pushing to change that.

And this year is the first that graduates from Anchorage School District in Alaska are explicitly allowed to wear regalia during graduation ceremonies, the Anchorage Daily News reported earlier this month. There wasn’t a districtwide policy before that, the News reported, but, generally, students weren’t allowed to alter their caps and gowns.