Ermelina Gonzalez said her graduation cap was beaded by her mother. “I’m really proud to be Athabaskan,” she said after her East High School graduation on May 11, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

For the East High School graduation Tuesday, Melrose Meneses adorned her mortarboard with the golden sun of the flag of the Philippines. Mele Takafua wore a Tongan dress and a Fijian necklace. Daniel Mokom’s unzipped gown revealed his embroidered shirt traditional to Cameroon. Amanda Yang’s sash had a Hmong design.

Ermelina Gonzalez also stood out among the mostly uniform blue caps and gowns on the football field. She said she felt privileged to graduate wearing a cap her mother beaded with a butterfly and flower design. Under her gown she wore the Athabaskan dress her mom wore at her own college graduation.

“I’m just really proud to be Athabaskan,” she said before she walked away.

Graduates in the Anchorage School District are increasingly displaying pride in their heritage by incorporating traditional regalia or other cultural references with their caps and gowns. The uptick is due in part to a 2019 regulation to allow it in a limited way. Prior to then, schools generally didn’t permit adornment of caps and gowns.

Mele Takafua wore traditional Tongan attire to her East High School graduation. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Maricruz Gomez incorporated the Mexican flag on her East High School graduation cap. “It means I made my parents proud, ’ she said. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Daniel Mokom wore an embroidered shirt traditional to to Camaroon at his East High School graduation. (Marc Lester / ADN)
East High School's Amanda Yang's graduation stole incorporated Hmong designs on May 11, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

It’s also due to the suspension of the rule last week. That action, taken by superintendent Deena Bishop, gave students even broader latitude to decide how to present themselves at graduation in what has long claimed to be one of the nation’s most diverse school districts.

The regulation offended some families because it required students to seek approval from administrators. Implementation was also fraught. In at least two instances this year, students were denied the chance to carry out their plans to don cultural regalia.

As officials faced mounting criticism, Bishop instructed principals on Tuesday to allow cultural garments at graduations regardless of prior approval status.

“We can say we have the best of intentions all the time, but that’s not good enough for the people that it harms,” Bishop said.

Objects of cultural significance

Service High School graduating senior Nyché Andrew worked to change school district's policy to allow for cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies. She wore a Yup'ik headdress, a sealskin sash and mukluks when she graduated on May 12, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

On Wednesday, Jacqueline Morris took the last steps on a long road toward seeing her daughter, Nyché Andrew, graduate while wearing a Yup’ik headdress.

“I’m beyond excited. I’m ecstatic,” Morris said. “This is what we fought for.”

The change in the district’s policy on regalia began, in large part, with Morris and Andrew. When Morris’ son graduated in 2018, a school staff member told him he had to remove his sealskin-covered cap. Although he was eventually allowed to wear it, the experience motivated Morris and Andrew to push for new districtwide rules.

Both worked with the district’s Native Advisory Committee on the issue, and later became members. Andrew’s testimony before the school board in November 2018 was a public-speaking first for her.

“I was very nervous,” she said.

The committee launched a letter-writing campaign, reaching out to many organizations, legislators, villages and others from Alaska’s Native communities, encouraging each to voice support for new rules. Andrew said she stuffed a thousand envelopes in a weekend.

Wearing her Yup'ik headdress, Nyché Andrew, right, waits to testify at the Anchorage School Board meeting on Nov. 5, 2018. Her sister Farrell Stoudt joined her for support. Andrew, then a sophomore, testified in favor of a new regulation to allow students to wear traditional regalia during graduation ceremonies. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Morris and Andrew both said they were not involved in crafting the language of the eventual rule.

The administrative regulation on graduation regalia was added to the district’s policy manual in March 2019. Administrative regulations fall under the authority of the superintendent and don’t require action from the school board.

“A graduating student may wear traditional objects of tribal regalia or recognized objects of cultural significance,” the new policy said.

It was a start, but Morris said the full regulation was insulting. It also required students to notify the school district of their plans for graduation attire, effectively adopting a case-by-case approval policy.

“How do they know what is culturally appropriate? Do they have someone from each specific tribe?” Morris said.

Notification forms were reviewed by principals from the largest high schools, two directors from the Secondary Education Department and two representatives from the district’s Department of Indian Education, according to district spokesman Alan Brown.

The policy also prioritized some uniformity. “Replacement of the cap and/or gown is not allowed,” it said.

For Andrew, that meant for all the work she had done, she was still denied her ultimate goal.

“I joined with the intent to get a policy so that I could wear my headdress,” she said. “And the policy that passed in April 2019 explicitly said that the mortarboard graduation cap could not be replaced.”

Graduating East High School student Melrose Meneses incorporated elements of the flag of the Philippines on her cap. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop speaks with East High School students before the start of their graduation ceremony. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Anchorage School District officials said the policy, written by administrators after a yearlong collaboration with the Native Advisory Committee, the Student Advisory Board and the Multicultural Education Concerns Advisory Committee, was designed to minimize inappropriate displays. Those include references to drugs, alcohol or other words and symbols students are not allowed to wear in school halls.

“The deliberateness of that policy was built to allow cultural expression without interfering with all these other things that we imagined would happen,” Bishop said Wednesday.

Seeking approval for cultural expression is inherently offensive, some parents said. Kevin McGee and Danyelle Kimp of the NAACP Anchorage called the policy discriminatory and called for its “de-colonization” in an opinion column published last month.

“This undignified and racist subsection of the Graduation Regalia policy must be repealed immediately,” they wrote. “You cannot throw breadcrumbs at people of color and expect for us to think it’s cake.”

While the district began to hear concerns, it also saw an increasing desire for regalia at graduations. Nearly 100 students submitted plans this year, an increase from 2019. There were no in-person graduation ceremonies last year due to the pandemic.

The new policy showed its flaws this year. Problems faced by three Alaska Native students exposed the reasons the district scrapped the rule.

‘They took my sealskin cap’

In 2020, Ayyu Qassataq considered beading sealskin to her mortarboard as a way to represent her Inupiaq heritage as she graduated from a master’s program at UAF. At the time, her son, David Paoli, commented that if she did, he would feel honored to wear it on his high school graduation day. His younger siblings agreed.

“As I was beading, I was praying for protection for all who wear it,” said Qassataq.

David Paoli poses with his sealskin graduation cap before the ceremony at West High School on May 10, 2021. The cap was taken from him before he entered the ceremony. (Ayyu Qassataq photo)

On Monday, Qassataq watched from the side of the field as Paoli, 17, entered the stadium. His father, who watched the procession from a closer vantage, noticed David wasn’t wearing his sealskin cap. A nearby staff member told him it had been taken away.

Qassataq had trouble concentrating on the speeches during the ceremony after she learned what happened.

“I had followed the school’s process of notifying the district that he wanted to wear his cultural regalia as part of their new policy as of two years ago, even though it was like grit in my gut to have to seek approval for my son to honor his culture on such an important day,” she said.

“I sat there, throughout the entire ceremony, completely outraged, sitting there and thinking about how the history of the education system in Alaska was formed with the express purpose of removing Native kids from their culture,” said Qassataq, whose master’s thesis was on that topic.

Qassataq said her son’s first words after they hugged at the conclusion of the graduation were, “They took my sealskin cap, Mom.”

West High School principal Sven Gustafson and district superintendent Bishop said the cap had been disallowed in error by the school’s security staff.

“He did everything right. This is on us,” Bishop said.

“That’s just one thing we never thought to go over with them, is the regalia piece,” Gustafson said. “I thought it was all taken care of and it wasn’t.”

That night, Qassataq wrote to the school board and superintendent. By early morning, board member Margo Bellamy replied that the matter would be looked into immediately. Gustafson called Qassataq early that day.

“He was very upset that this happened on his watch, and was incredibly apologetic,” she said.

“I want to support every kid in every single bit of their being,” Gustafson said. “I mean, this isn’t acceptable for me in my building, and that’s what I’ve been working on to fix.”

At Qassataq’s request, Gustafson said he’d reach out to other principals in an effort to prevent similar problems at other schools. Bishop followed up with principals later that day.

“All schools have been notified to allow children to wear their cultural regalia no matter what our regulation says,” Qassataq said Bishop wrote in an email.

Qassataq said the reaction from school officials was appropriate, but more needs to be done.

“It felt like my family’s celebration was stolen from us,” she said. “We can’t ever get that back.”

“The only way to make this right is to ensure that our Native students will never experience what my son experienced, or what our family experienced,” Qassataq said.

A backyard graduation

Ivalu Blanchett decided not to attend the West High School graduation after she was told she couldn't wear her Greenlandic shawl over her gown. Instead, she had a private graduation ceremony in her yard. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The graduation ceremony for West senior Ivalu Blanchett was ultimately wonderful, she said, even if it wasn’t what she once envisioned.

“I had my own private ceremony, right here with my family,” she said standing in her Midtown backyard.

The 18-year-old wore a Yup’ik headdress, received her first dance fans and was blessed by her grandmother.

“We just danced as a prayer for my family and we had a big feast after,” she said.

Weeks earlier, Blanchett notified the district that she intended to wear a beaded shawl in the tradition of the Greenlandic national costume at the West High School graduation. The shawl was a gift from Karina Moeller, Blanchett’s mother, who beaded the colorful work of art. Blanchett said graduation day was her first big opportunity to wear it. Moeller, who was born and raised in Greenland, is a member of the popular Alaska-based music group Pamyua, along with Blanchett’s father, Phillip Blanchett.

Last month, Blanchett’s stepmom, Lauren Blanchett, got a call from the school that her plans were rejected. The family was advised that she could wear the shawl under her gown at graduation.

This too was a wrong call by a West High staff member, Gustafson said. “That shouldn’t have happened,” he said this week.

Gustafson said he wishes the family had called him and he had a chance to correct the situation. But Blanchett decided not to further justify her desire to wear the item. She would skip the ceremony entirely instead, she decided.

“Obviously I was really disappointed by the school and their decision to do this, but it really gave me an opportunity to think about what my culture means to me and how I would like to celebrate this moment in the most authentic way,” Ivalu Blanchett said.

Phillip Blanchett said he initially disagreed with his daughter’s decision to skip the school’s graduation. His hesitation dissolved when the backyard ceremony was complete, he said.

“Once we had it and it was so beautiful and strong, that’s when I got it,” Phillip said. “That’s when I realized how proud I was for her for standing up for her principles.”

Ivalu Blanchett, top center, dances with her family at a private graduation ceremony in her yard on May 8, 2021. Her sister Tun’aqi Blanchett is at left, her father Phillip Blanchett is at center and her grandmother Marie Meade is at right. (Lauren Blanchett photo)

Gustafson said the realization that two of his students were let down has made for a long week.

“I’m devastated that this happened for these kids. This is not how we do things,” Gustafson said. “We try to support every single kid and, goodness, it makes me sick. I haven’t slept in a few days.”

West curriculum principal David Little drove the diploma to the student’s home Wednesday night and apologized on behalf of the school, according to Ivalu.

Phillip said he appreciates the response so far from officials. The regulation’s requirements and its shortcomings in practice amounted to a missed opportunity, he said.

“There’s no reason to be afraid of the human spirit and the expression of culture,” he said. “And I feel like with the graduation at a school like West, they can celebrate that spirit and that excitement without losing anything and only gaining.”

“I think that we get so easily stuck into traditions that in this case are one-sided,” Phillip said, “And it’s just one way of a European perspective of how a commencement should be.”

The school district said it plans to begin a formal review process about the rule once graduation ceremonies conclude. Students, principals, parents and community groups will be part of the discussion, Bishop said.

A voice for change

Wearing her Yup'ik headdress, Nyché Andre gives a land acknowledgement at the start of the Service High School graduation on May 12, 2021. Her image is shown on a video screen at the side of the stage. (Marc Lester / ADN)

On Wednesday afternoon, Nyché Andrew stood on stage at the start of her Service High School graduation ceremony and looked out at the crowd of classmates and parents. Andrew, who identifies as Yup’ik and Inupiaq, wore her headdress, a sealskin sash beaded with the numbers 2021, and mukluks on her feet.

“We would like to take this moment to acknowledge the Dena’ina Athabascan people and the wisdom that has allowed them to steward the land on which Anchorage and Service High School reside,” she said into the microphone.

Andrew wore just what she envisioned when she worked for policy change years ago, she said. But it has been a long road.

“It has taken up a lot of my high school career, but it’s definitely something I think was worth it,” she said.

Family members of Nyché Andrew hold pictures of her from the stands while the Service High School student crossed the stage. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Looking back, Andrew said there were times she wasn’t proud. She said she experienced bullying for being Native at all levels of school. She recalls where she walked the halls of high school feeling nauseous about encountering students who would demean Alaska Native people and culture. Even after the 2019 regalia regulation passed, she had to reconcile her own hesitancy to wear a kuspuk to school on Indigenous People’s Day. She expected racist comments and she heard them that day, she said.

“If my strong daughter — outspoken, powerful daughter — feels that way, imagine what all the Alaska Natives feel like who are quiet and reserved,” said Jacqueline Morris, her mother.

This year, Andrew’s approval process for her graduation attire was even more onerous than it was for most. She sought a policy exception that would allow her to wear her headdress instead of a mortarboard.

Before Wednesday’s ceremony, Andrew said she didn’t know of any other students at Service who planned to display Native regalia in their graduation attire. Though she didn’t realize it, her work to change the rules affected at least three of her classmates this year.

Aynzli Abad wore a mortarboard with beading along its edges to her Service School Graduation on May 12, 2021. She said she wanted her graduation attire to cap and stole to reflect her Inupiaq and Filipino pride. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Angela Analoak-Bordenelli beaded forget-me-nots into her mortarboard. Conrad Boerner’s mom incorporated sealskin on his cap. Aynzli Abad’s mortarboard was beaded along its edges. All three said they wanted to display their Inupiaq pride.

Like Andrew, Abad said she felt compelled as a younger person to push her culture away. Now, the college-bound senior, who is also Filipino, embraces it. She said Andrew’s work on the regalia issue was impactful.

“I’ve known her for so long. I’ve gone to school with her since seventh grade, and having that voice really empowers everyone (the policy) affects,” Abad said.

When Andrew’s name was announced and she crossed the stage, Morris, wearing a sweatshirt that said “One proud mama,” hoisted a posterboard picture of Andrew’s head from her seat in the stands.

“That’s my baby,” she yelled. She later described her daughter as “unapologetically Indigenous.”

Graduating senior Nyché Andrew is congratulated by Service High School staff members. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Morris said she was disappointed to hear other Alaska Native students in Anchorage encountered difficulty wearing regalia. She hopes the option to do so will prove an effective way to encourage students to reach graduation. It could also educate the community at large.

“I really hope it encourages other Alaska Natives and American Natives to want to finish high school, to know their power, know their roots ...” Morris said.

“And hopefully racism will be a thing of the past,” she said. “That’s my prayer.”