CEDAR CITY, Utah -- She walked up a red carpet and crossed a stage to accept her diploma wearing an eagle feather beaded onto her cap that her mother had gifted her.
Amryn Tom graduated this week from southern Utah's Cedar City High School. Her family cheered.
For the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and other Native Americans, eagle feathers of the variety Tom wore are sacred items passed down through generations, used at ceremonies to signify achievement and connection with the community.
“This is from your ancestors,” Tom said her mother, Charie, told her.
One year ago, students in Tom's school district would have been barred from wearing any form of tribal regalia along with their traditional cardinal-colored caps and gowns.
Not this year.
In March, Utah joined a growing list of states in enshrining Native American students' rights to wear tribal regalia at their graduation ceremonies.
In Iron County, where the school district tried to bar two graduates from wearing regalia at last year's ceremonies, Tom and other Native American students savored the hard-won right.
“It’s kind of huge,” said Paiute tribal member Brailyn Jake, an eagle feather and beads dangling from her turquoise cap. Her cousin was one of the students stopped from donning beads last year.
“People don’t understand our culture, the meaning behind it and how, when you’re turned down for something this big, it’s kind of like, wow," Jake said.
Students across the U.S. often sport flower leis or flashy sashes at graduation with little controversy. But the rules governing tribal regalia at high school graduations have emerged as a legislative issue in several red and blue states after reports of students being prevented from wearing attire like Jake and Tom's.
Arizona, California, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington all recently enacted laws that either enshrine students’ rights or bar schools from enforcing dress codes banning tribal regalia. After passing through the legislature, a bill with similar provisions is being sent to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
In Utah, Paiute Chairwoman Corrina Bow brought the issue to state lawmakers after last year's two Iron County incidents. The district had no formal rules prohibiting Native American students from donning regalia.
Bow noted the graduation rate for Native American and Alaskan Native students was 74% in 2019, the lowest of any demographic group, and told lawmakers that guaranteeing students statewide the right to wear regalia would allow them to “honor their culture, religion and heritage.”
Similar controversies have occurred at schools in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, suburban Chicago and elsewhere, with graduates being barred from wearing everything from beadwork and moccasins to sealskin caps. The incidents pit Native American students and their parents against administrators who say they want to maintain uniformity at graduation ceremonies.
Emalyce Kee, who is Navajo and Rosebud Sioux, was one of the two students told not to wear a beaded cap or plumes to her Cedar City High School graduation ceremony last year. She did it anyway.
Before walking across the stage to accept her diploma, Kee switched out her plain cap for one with a plume and beadwork by her uncle. Half a dozen family members in the front row applauded.
"I hadn't felt that powerful before that moment, standing up with my diploma, with my Native cap on and then shaking my principal’s hand," Kee said.
At a high school that used “Redmen” as its mascot until 2019, Kee and her mother, Valerie Glass, said it stuck with them how the principal had argued beaded caps would set a precedent to allow all students to decorate their graduation attire.
“It’s not ‘decorative’ regalia. It's traditional beaded regalia. How can you have the Cedar Redmen for so long and not honor your Native American students?” Glass said.
Iron County Superintendent Lance Hatch was not available for comment.
Hoksila Lakota gifted his nephew Elijah James Wiggins, who is of Lakota ancestry, an eagle feather in honor of his graduation from Cedar City High School on Wednesday. He said eagle feathers — called wamblii wakan in Lakota — are fundamental to celebrating once-in-a-lifetime achievements, with many believing they hold a connection to God.
“These aren’t something you find on the floor and do whatever with,” he said. "These are sacred items given from grandfather to son or uncle to nephew."
Metz reported from Salt Lake City.