Graduation ceremonies this spring became the testing ground for a new state law that protects tribal members’ right to wear regalia at significant public events. Most have gone off without a hitch — students across the state are receiving their diplomas in beaded caps and gowns, but schools are still trying to figure out how to implement the new law.
Zephrey Holloway sits at his kitchen table in Kalispell, holding an eagle feather, while his mom, Muriel Winnier, tells the feather’s story.
Rings of blue, teal, yellow and red beads enwrap the quill of the white feather that ends in a brown tip. It was given to Holloway to mark his graduation from high school last Friday. Before that, it belonged to his grandmother, and before that, his great-grandfather, a Korean War veteran.
"It even smells like a sun dance ceremony, like sweetgrass and sage," Winnier says. "You can almost smell the history on it. It's really important, and he's going to have it for the rest of his life."
Holloway wore this feather at his graduation ceremony at Flathead High School last Friday, but school administrators wouldn’t let him wear the other part of his grandmother’s gift: a mortar board painted with an intricate feather headdress surrounded with symbolic colors and designs.
"It's beautiful," says Holloway. "It's awesome that my grandma took the time for my graduation cap to paint it. It took her 12 hours, a long time."
Holloway, who’s a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, says his school administration broke state law by not letting him wear it. In April, Governor Steve Bullock signed Senate Bill 319 into law. It prohibits local governments, including school districts, from barring tribal members and others from wearing items of cultural significance at certain events, like high school graduations.
At the graduation ceremony on Friday, Flathead High School administrators cited a school policy that prevents students from altering their graduation caps, like adding glitter or leis, when they told Holloway to wear a plain mortar board. The school does allow beading and feathers. By late Monday afternoon, Principal Peter Fusaro issued a statement, which reads, in part:
"The application of this provision in this situation was in error. The school district and administration at Flathead High School regret the misapplication of this policy and has extended apologies to the student, their family, and their grandmother who painted the cap."
Fusaro released the statement after receiving multiple phone calls about the incident, including one from Jen Gross, the Billings Democratic senator who sponsored the new legislation. I spoke with her before she reached Principal Fusaro.
"It was the intent that this legislation should guide school policies, and I think something that we missed, unfortunately in time for grad this year, was putting process in place to inform schools, notify them of the new law and perhaps issue guidance," says Gross.
Gross picked up the bill after last year hearing at forums in Billings that Native American students had been asked to remove beadwork from graduation robes and caps, or were required to purchase two — a plain one to wear on graduation day and a second one that could be decorated for pictures at home. However, she adds the bill is not limited to Native American students on graduation day.
"We shouldn’t be limiting an individual's ability to express their identity, their cultural identity in a meaningful way," Gross says. "Sometimes I do think it is appropriate for the state to step in and say, 'hey, it's not ok to deny the rights of this individual.' "
Gross worked closely with a group called Western Native Voice, a Montana-based social justice non-profit organization, to draft the legislation. Marci McLean is the executive director for Western Native Voice. She says this incident highlights a lack of understanding of the different traditions and customs held by Montana’s Native tribes.
"For the people who tried to say beading or painting is not traditional to us, before we had the beads we used the quillwork, and we've been using painting in our ceremonies and in our culture since pre-1492," McLean says. "So these are things that have been part of Native culture before we spoke English language. So for that man, that principal or vice principal, whoever it was that told this child you can only wear an eagle feather, I think that it completely out of bounds for him to think that he can say what’s appropriate."
McLean adds that state grant funding is available for schools to offer cultural sensitivity training through the state’s Indian Education For All Act.
Zephrey Holloway says he hopes the focus shifts away from his single incident, and instead spurs a broader conversation about respecting other cultures.
"I do want to have some recognition and at least not a blind eye to racism, how blunt it hits you in the face, whether it's fine like through a school or whether it's outright racist," Holloway says. "Whether it’s a football game...."
"We need to be culturally sensitive," adds his mom, Muriel Winnier. "I've sat at football games for the four years that he spent there. And I've watched them mock Native Americans. And I've watched them use hand drums. And I've sat there, and I've stayed quiet, and I’ve stayed respectful, even when it goes against my own beliefs — that I am not a mascot, and neither are my ancestors. But this was his day, so that's where I stand. The bill needs to be respected."
She adds that the public statement from Principal Fusaro, and his personal apology to her feels great, like a good step forward.