The Anchorage School District has updated its policy that allows students during graduation to wear items expressive of their cultural heritage and identity.
The reworked policy allows students to adorn their graduation cap, gown or stole with “traditional objects of tribal regalia or recognized objects of cultural significance.” The district also eliminated one controversial part of the policy that required students to get their planned attire pre-approved by administrators.
Last year, some families found having to seek approval to wear their own traditional regalia to be an insulting requirement.
“It is completely inappropriate for there to be anyone in a position of authority to tell Native people when and where we can wear our cultural regalia, in particular around rites of passage,” said Ayyu Qassataq, who is Inupiaq. Her son was one of the students last year who should’ve been allowed to wear their regalia at graduation, but weren’t.
The situation led to apologies from school and district leadership, a suspension of the rule during graduation season and an ensuing update to the rules.
Students in the highly diverse Anchorage School District are increasingly embracing the opportunity to represent their heritage at graduation by wearing traditional regalia and modifying their caps, stoles and gowns.
Suella Wendell, who is Yup’ik and set to graduate from Chugiak High School next year, plans to wear regalia at her graduation ceremony, including a Yup’ik headdress created by an elder from Toksook Bay and mukluks. She is part of the Native Advisory Committee, one of the groups that helped change the policy this year.
“We wanted to get the message across that everyone, including other cultures, are invited to wear their own regalia,” Wendell said.
She said she didn’t want students to have to ask permission to don regalia, and she wanted high school principals to understand how important wearing items of cultural significance at graduation is for so many.
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Secondary director Marty Lang said the district’s intent has been to allow students a chance to showcase their heritage, but last year, there were instances when items were not allowed and should have been.
“It was very difficult for those families, right? They took a lot of pride in creating those, and we don’t want to put any students or families in that situation,” Lang said.
Lang said students will be allowed to wear their gown unzipped to reveal traditional garments, but the gown itself is a required element.
“We also want to strike that balance between kind of that uniform graduation look, and giving students a chance to celebrate their individual backgrounds,” Lang said.
Students are now allowed to substitute their caps with a traditional headdress, which some principals made exceptions for last year.
Paul McDonogh, who is Sugpiaq and a supervisor of Indigenous programs at the Anchorage School District, said that he started speaking with parents, directors, a principal and the Native Advisory Committee in August about the policy.
“The discussion was very passionate from all sorts of different people, and my role was to kind of gather voices from all these directions, and to look at, what can we change?” he said.
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From early on, their discussions centered around creating a policy that families could trust, and that trust served as a guiding principle, he said.
“The first thing we took off the page was the notification,” McDonogh said about the pre-approval requirement. “Families are now just invited to wear regalia, which is a big deal. They don’t have to ask about it.”
He said the district expects hundreds of students graduating in regalia this year.
“That’s the trust right there,” McDonogh said. “Just come and dress as you would like to.”
He said the regulation changes what principals consider disruptive to make sure that what occurred last year will not happen again.
“I’m aware there’s administrative need to have some rules and follow them,” McDonogh said. “A student would be removed for disruptive behavior ... a student would be asked to make alterations if what they’re wearing as regalia just simply doesn’t fit the rules that we agreed on.”
He said the district will still remove disruptions. But he said principals will understand that regalia — sarongs, headdresses, moccasins — are still formal.
“Really, the only thing we’re removing is a non-cultural disruptive type of expression,” he said.
Students will go through an initial security screening process before the ceremony done by school safety and security teams, McDonogh said. He said he’s been clear that students should only be screened for security concerns, and if there is a dress code concern, it should get elevated to an administrator.
For Wendell, with the advisory committee, wearing regalia at graduation empowers her to show pride in her culture. The headdress she plans to wear features purple, red and blue beads, with fur that goes up, she said.
“To wear regalia, it shows that Indigenous students are graduating, because you could visually see it in the crowd and it’s bringing a sense of community together,” Wendell said. “And also, it brings together families because assembling your regalia and stuff — it requires a lot of family interactions.”
She’ll be the first of her immediate cousins to graduate while wearing regalia and said it shows her other family and community members that they could do so as well.
“I think this is cool to show that the residential schools didn’t work,” Wendell said. “We didn’t lose our culture,” she said.
Qassataq’s oldest child, at his graduation last year, planned to wear a sealskin cap she’d made. But he wasn’t allowed to wear the cap during his ceremony at West High, despite their family following the required steps to get the regalia pre-approved. It was very hard to take in her son’s achievement after realizing the cap had been taken from him, she said.
She went home and wrote an email to the school board, knowing the superintendent would see it. She outlined why it was wrong and asked how the situation would be avoided in the future.
Qassataq asked her son if she could share about the incident on social media and reach out to members of the media. He told her that he didn’t want the scenario to happen to other Native students or families and that they had a responsibility to make sure it didn’t hurt someone else.
“He gave me permission to then share it and use it as an opportunity to shed light on how this circumstance is a symptom of the ways that the education system in Alaska has and continues to assimilate Native people in ways that are harmful to us,” she said.
Administrators were appalled at what happened, she said. Qassataq said she advocated for the implementation of mandatory annual training about Alaska Native peoples and cultures for educators in the district, and said the student curriculum needed to be updated to better reflect Native people’s history and knowledge.
“Simply taking one student’s graduation cap from them seems like not a big deal until you understand that it’s representative of a system that has always sought to strip us from who we are,” she said.
Qassataq said she spoke with the superintendent, school board members, the committee reviewing the policy and Indian education staff at the district to provide input and support changing the policy to better reflect its intention of encouraging students to express their cultural identity.
The policy has definitely changed for the better, Qassataq said. That includes removing the pre-approval process for regalia at graduation as well as making room for students to wear cultural headdresses instead of a graduation cap and adornment on stoles and downs. But she said the policy shift needs to be coupled with education about Alaska Native history, so there’s a shared understanding of regalia’s importance.
“I want to get to a place where our educators are themselves protective of our Native students’ right to wear our regalia,” she said.
Wearing regalia is important because under missionaries and the formation of the education system, “our ability to express our ways of life and who we are was taken away from us,” she said. “Many of our communities to this day are still unable to sing and dance our traditional songs.”
Among Alaska Native people, a student’s graduation is a collective achievement, and education is a responsibility to contribute back to their community, according to Qassataq. The ability to wear regalia helps instill pride, she said.
“You can identify, looking at a Native person and their regalia, who they are and where they come from. And that means that you’re accountable to your family and to your community,” she said. “And that’s important to us.”