As Bartlett High School seniors walked across the stage to claim diplomas this week, many displayed their cultural pride, clothed in flags, headdresses, fur, beads and other elements important to their heritages.
Over the past few years following advocacy from students and families, the Anchorage School District has made a series of adjustments to its policy surrounding what students can wear at graduation ceremonies as representations of their culture. This year, students were allowed to replace both their cap and gown with traditional and cultural elements.
Oumie Fatty-Hydara, the school’s valedictorian, stood onstage draped in a custom-made stole with the flag of Gambia on it. The small West African nation is where Fatty-Hydara’s parents are from. Fatty-Hydara said she is incredibly proud of her Gambian culture.
“Anyone that knows me, they know Oumie and Gambia is synonymous,” she said in an interview this week.
Fatty-Hydara said she hoped that as people watched the commencement and saw her in the stole, they would see all the different representations of culture at Bartlett, and see themselves in her.
“I really want people to know, like, you don’t have to come from a certain place or look a certain way to be able to have the opportunity to have something like this,” said Fatty-Hydara, who plans to attend Dartmouth College on a full-ride scholarship and is the second-ever Black valedictorian in the school’s history. “Not many people know of my parent’s home country. And I just want people to see what can be produced just like with nurture and with care.”
Though born in the United States, Fatty-Hydara can speak her native tongue, Mandinka, which she learned from her grandmother. Her language makes her proud and connected to her Gambian heritage, she said. She’s been to Gambia several times and said that as the plane flies over Africa, the energy in the airplane begins to pick up.
It’s a wash, a feeling of relief, a feeling of arriving home, she said. Wearing the stole at graduation is a way to take that feeling with her, Fatty-Hydara said.
After the ceremony, students filed out of the Alaska Airlines Center to celebrate with their friends and family. Music boomed in the parking lot as loved ones embraced the newly graduated seniors, placing leis over their heads and beaming with pride.
Kayla Moua left the arena wearing a cap and stole decorated with Hmong designs and adorned with coins important in her Hmong culture that her mother had sewed on.
“When people see me wear it, I want them to know that I’m representing who I am, and where I came from,” Moua said.
Moua said she wanted to represent her culture at graduation because it defines who she is.
“I would not be who I am without it,” she said.
Nearby, graduate Shannon Smith stood surrounded by family and wore a parka trimmed with beaver fur and ribbonry, sealskin mukluks and a cap decorated by her sister with sealskin and beadwork. Smith, who is Iñupiaq, said that she wears her cultural regalia to show pride.
“I wore my regalia because it plays a big role in my life, and it makes me happy,” Smith said.
Wearing her cultural regalia is also a sign of respect, Smith said.
“I just think it feels super nice to get recognized and just be appreciated by my elders and culture,” she said.
Dianna Chuitt, who is Dena’ina Athabascan, wore a custom-made ribbon skirt, traditional moccasins from Fairbanks, beaded earrings and an eagle feather from her village, Tyonek.
“I take a lot of pride in my Native culture, it’s what I grew up in, so I just wanted to show appreciation for it,” Chuitt said. “And its beauty.”
Yvonne Park, the class’s student speaker at graduation, created a cap that merged her two heritages, emblazoned with both the flag of South Korea and American Samoa. Last year, Park saw a graduate with the same ethnicity as her who had decorated her cap similarly. Park said the student wore the cap and gown “loud and proud.”
“I just see myself right there in front of that girl: I was like, ‘Why not do it? I am proud of representing who I am to the community here (in) Anchorage or at Bartlett.’ ”
During Park’s speech, she asked graduates to turn to their family members in the cavernous arena and lock eyes with them. The room turned thunderous as Park instructed the Class of 2023 in unison to say “thank you.”
During that moment, Josiah Green, one of the Bartlett graduates, made a heart shape with his hands and held it up to his family. Green said that to him, “family is everything.”
Green was wearing a haku and lei handmade in Hawaii, which his mom wanted him to wear at the ceremony, he said.
“I want to point out my mom,” Green said. “... She’s the hardest worker, she’s worked three jobs at once for me and my sister, she’s done everything. She’s a single mother. I’m really proud of her. This is like, her moment.”
Kilei Green Luafulu, his mom, said the graduation was the best day of her life. Park, in her speech, had referenced a proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.” That resonated with Luafulu, she said.
“That’s what I’ve always said is, it takes a village,” she said. “And to see him in there representing all of his cultures — his Native, his Polynesian, white, Black — is just remarkable. I’m proud he can celebrate everything.”