SACRAMENTO—State high school administrators don’t have to write on the blackboard 100 times, “I won’t break the law,” but the message delivered to them today is clear: obey the law.
With high school graduation ceremonies underway across California, some Native American students are once again facing additional unnecessary burdens: convincing school and district administrators to follow the law and allow the wearing of tribal regalia at commencements to celebrate their culture during one of the most important accomplishments in their young lives.
The message was delivered at a news briefing Wednesday after local cases of school districts seeking to set unnecessary conditions and limit or deny students the right to wear tribal regalia at their graduation observances. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, California Native American Legislative Caucus Chairperson James C. Ramos (D-San Bernardino), tribal leaders and advocates reaffirmed the legal and constitutional right of tribal students to wear cultural items during their commencements.
Ramos said, “In 2018, the state passed AB 1248, which stated in part, “A pupil may wear traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment at school graduation ceremonies. Since then, students and families continue to face obstacles in exercising this right.”
He added that following continuing complaints and lawsuits, he successfully authored AB 945 in 2021—co-sponsored by the California Department of Education—to require the department to form a task force of tribes and appointees from the governor’s office, the state education department and tribes from around the state to work with schools to ensure the law is being followed and how best to set policies and practices around the issue.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said, “I was proud to co-sponsor AB 945 by Assembly Ramos; this legislation will help to develop policies that will address how to ensure our Native American students will be able to affirm their Native identity and connection to ancestry and culture by wearing traditional cultural adornments during graduation ceremonies. “
Tedde Simon (Diné), Indigenous justice advocate with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said, “Every year, we see school administrators, teachers and staff attempting to stop Indigenous students from wearing tribal regalia at commencement, blatantly disregarding California law and the importance these items hold for Indigenous people. We call on all schools in California to respect and honor students’ rights to wear tribal regalia during this monumental, once-in-a-lifetime celebration.”
Heather Hostler (Hupa), CILS executive director, stated, “It’s incredibly important that we arm Native students and their families with information about their rights under AB 1248. This country has a long history of atrocities against tribal people and sought to dismantle cultures and assimilate them. Wearing tribal regalia at important milestones like commencements show that we are still here today, that we honor our ancestors who fought to preserve our culture before us and that we are committed to carrying on our traditions. CILS is here to protect and advance your right to wear regalia proudly at graduation.”
In speaking to a reporter, former chairwoman of the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu Indians Jessica Lopez voiced her frustration after she had to argue with her local school district officials about wearing regalia. Lopez spoke at today’s briefing. Her son sought to wear a mortarboard beaded in a goose pattern with an eagle feather and ceremonial sash, but administrators pushed back and told Lopez not all mandatory pre-conditions had been met. “The district says it’s open to reviewing the policy. That’s not good enough. Here we are having to tromp along the path of educating the educators. They need to know that they are in violation [of the law] if they do not protect the rights of these students.”
Ramos, the first California Native American elected to the Legislature, observed, “High school graduations are times of great celebration in our tribal communities. Eagle feathers and other symbols of Native American significance are often presented by a proud community to the student as a way to recognize personal achievement. It is a means for the tribe not only to honor the student but to share in and express pride in the graduate’s achievements.”
Information about this student right may be found on the California Indian Legal Services website at https://www.calindian.org/ and a tool kit is available on the ACLU of Northern California at:https://www.aclunc.org/california-students-have-right-wear-tribal-regalia-graduation.
Assembly member James C. Ramos proudly represents the 45th Assembly district that includes the cities of Fontana, Highland, Mentone, Redlands, Rialto and San Bernardino. He is the first and only California Native American serving in the state Legislature. Ramos chairs the Assembly Committees on Rules.