High school seniors across the U.S. have started planning for their graduation ceremony. For Native students and their families, this process includes determining if their school graduation policies are in accord with the right of Indigenous people to wear traditional clothing or religious and cultural items to their graduation ceremony.

Often, Native students wear regalia or related items for the same reasons that some students wear an honor cord or stole to graduation—in recognition of their academic achievement. Many states and schools now have policies to ensure Native students receive the same respect and regard as students allowed to wear other symbols of religious and academic achievement. However, some school district policies require students to request dress code accommodations well in advance of the graduation ceremony.

Native students and their families should review school policies and request any dress code accommodations as early as possible. Starting early gives the family and student time to build a bridge of understanding with school officials who may or may not have an inclusive policy to guide them. Once school administrators understand the religious, cultural, and academic significance of Indigenous cultural items, they are more likely to respect students’ right to wear them.

Sadly, every spring, Native students from across the country contact the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) for assistance because their schools denied requests to wear traditional items at graduation. Schools that insist on uniformity of dress at any cost force Native students into the position of having to choose between being included in the celebration or following religious and cultural traditions.

Students, families, allies, and educators sometimes must help school officials grasp the significance of Native regalia created for graduation. To assist, NARF assembled resources that outline the related legal protections at https://www.narf.org/cases/graduation/

NARF looks forward to you and your loved ones celebrating your great accomplishment while proudly practicing your Native religious and cultural traditions at graduation.

While traditions vary across cultural groups, Native people respect academic achievement as a rite of passage and moment of honor, typically by donning specific religious and cultural items such as eagle plumes, eagle feathers, or other regalia. Photo of Coy-A-Dee Salomon.

How can you help?

Without the help of allies, Native students and their families bear the burden of making school district policies more inclusive. Be an ally!

Proactively share the link to this post with the principal of your local public high school. Ask if school and district dress code policies affirm the right of Indigenous students to practice their religious and cultural traditions.

If the school does not have a policy of welcoming Native students to participate in the graduation ceremony while donning their traditional attire, please let them know they can find information to help update district policies at: https://www.narf.org/cases/graduation/

Thank you for your advocacy: it could make all the difference for a Native student in this year’s graduating class and in years to come, too.

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