How new Arizona law is making Native-American students feel ‘visible’
A bill promoting visibility among Native American students by allowing them to feel heard at their graduation ceremonies was passed in April.
HB 2705 prohibits schools from establishing a dress code policy that restricts students from wearing tribal regalia or items of cultural significance at a graduation ceremony.
It was added onto previous legislation permitting students to wear cultural accessories during extracurricular activities.
State Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren from District 7 took the lead on getting the bill passed after she assumed the position of State Rep. Arlando Teller who originally sponsored it.
The topic of the bill arose after a student in the Dysart School District was turned away at her graduation in 2019 for decorating her cap with tribal regalia, according to Blackwater-Nygren.
“It was extremely disappointing and frustrating to that student and their family,” Blackwater-Nygren said.
While Native Americans have the lowest high school graduation rates of any minority, Blackwater-Nygren said graduation ceremonies are an important milestone for Native students.
She said graduation ceremonies give Native students the opportunity to showcase the strength of their culture.
“Wearing regalia shows a sense of pride and resilience that’s embedded in in our cultures, which has survived assimilation attempts and genocide,” Blackwater-Nygren said.
Sumaya Quitugua is the secretary of the Phoenix Indian Youth Council, representing Native youth as a student at Perry High School. Quitugua saw videos and pictures on social media of students happy to receive their diplomas along with students denied their diplomas because of dress code.
She said they were wearing their regalia, feathers or a handprint on their face, which represents missing and murdered indigenous women.
“When we wear our clothing, it is us using our voices without having to speak a word,” Quitugua said.
Tribal clothing can’t be bought at H&M or Ross, Quitugua said. Jewelry and regalia are passed down through generations.
“It strengthens me,” Quitugua said. “A lot of my jewelry is from my grandmother and great grandmother who are very strong women.”
Native American specialist Lynnann Yazzie works for the Phoenix Union High School District, which consists of 21 high schools. She oversees the Native American Education Program.
NAEP provides assistance for Native American students in a district of about 1,300 Native students and over 50 different tribes represented amongst students and staff, according to Yazzie.
“Knowing that we have that many students and staff in our district, we wholeheartedly support our students being able to express their identities,” Yazzie said.
Yazzie said it is damaging for students to be told they can’t wear their eagle feather or beadwork on their cap.
“It makes it seem like that part of them needs to be hidden when it’s something that should be celebrated,” Yazzie said.
She said she has noticed overall invisibility among Native Americans, as demographics rarely provide Native American numbers and instead group them in an “other” category.
“Our district is working more towards that visibility and has been encouraging students to wear their regalia,” Yazzie said.
If students know they can show their identity without getting in trouble, Yazzie said that can lead to their own self-pride “when you feel invisible in a school system.”
While Arizona school districts consist of a wide range of diversity in students’ race, religion, sexual orientation and gender, Yazzie said that legislation like this is essential in keeping schools from prohibiting expression of that diversity.
“I would love to see every school in every district celebrate the diversity that they have in their schools,” Yazzie said.