“They took my sealskin cap, Mom.”
Those were the first words my son spoke to me after his high school graduation ceremony.
With great pride in our Iñupiaq culture, my oldest son wore our sealskin graduation cap to his West Anchorage High School graduation ceremony. He had convinced me last year to sew the cap for my own graduation from the Master’s in Rural Development program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, reminding me that all my kids and future grandkids could wear it for their graduations, beginning with him this year — something my other children enthusiastically agreed with.
My heart felt full watching him walk ahead of me so proudly wearing our family’s cap. Though it had churned my gut to be required to seek “approval” from the Anchorage School District for my son to wear it, having followed the necessary steps to do so last month I chose to focus on gratitude for finally living in a time where our Native kids can demonstrate pride in who we are and where we come from, an opportunity too often denied to us right here in Alaska.
As my son lined up to take the field in a gated waiting area — where no cellphones or parents were allowed — an official confiscated his sealskin cap, stating it was “against district policy” and replaced it with a plain mortarboard cap. While they seemed apologetic about it, there was no recourse available to him. I had no knowledge that this had transpired until his dad informed me it had been taken and my son entered the field wearing a plain cap.
On the day I should have been able to focus entirely on the tremendous achievement of my beautiful son, I sat there stunned and outraged throughout the entire ceremony. I could hardly hear the speeches made by my son’s classmates as tears stung my cheeks in the cold wind. In my anger, thoughts of the layers of injustice inherent in this painful act swirled through my mind.
Very few Alaskans know that the history of our entire education system is rooted in violent assimilation of Alaska Native children. Our own complex traditional systems — which successfully educated our children for thousands of years — were supplanted through a partnership between missionaries and the Territory of Alaska under the leadership of General Agent of Education Sheldon Jackson. With seed funding from the United States government, they formed localized missionary schools and later boarding schools with the expressed purpose of “uplifting the whole (Native) population out of barbarism to civilization.”
By 1890, the law required that our children — and families — speak only English, cutting us off from our own sophisticated knowledge of the world and our place in it, often using deeply violent methods to separate us from our very selves and knowledge that had kept us strong for thousands of years. These barbarous practices persisted well into the 1970s. Survivors of this education era walk among us to this day — the strongest people I know; the parents, aunties, uncles and grandparents of the Native children in our schools today.
Please tell me, what has actually changed? What about our education system today in any way reflects the beauty and brilliance of Alaska Native peoples and cultures or our knowledge of this place? Our curriculum certainly doesn’t. Our pedagogies and ways of measuring success don’t.
Is it any wonder that Western measures of educational achievement — which nearly always measure how “successfully” assimilated away from our own cultures we are — are so much further out of reach for us?
Instead of asking why Native students often struggle, what can we learn by understanding how successfully our system supports its white students?
Whose regalia (with roots in Christianity) is centered as “normal” while everyone else — including the first peoples of this place — have to seek special permission, in this case denied the day of?
Whose perspectives are centered and normalized in all we teach?
Whose histories are privileged, and for what purpose?
Do students see themselves reflected in ways that value and uplift their diverse backgrounds?
How can we do a better job creating a sense of belonging and value for all students?
Though the anti-racism and instructional equity policies recently passed are a step in the right direction for mitigating these unjust situations, true systemic change will require an overhaul of a system that too often denies our very humanity, and it will require all of us pushing for necessary change.
In the wake of his graduation ceremony, I am focusing on the incredible accomplishment of my firstborn — I refuse to let this deeply angering experience diminish his achievement. He is truly one of the smartest and sweetest people I know, and nothing can take away from all that he has overcome throughout his life to reach this important life milestone.
As tired as we are of always being a lesson, one way I choose to honor him is through renewed commitment to working for the changes our students deserve, I hope you will join me — this work will require us all.
My son did get our sealskin cap back. It was boxed up with all other confiscated items: cellphones, noisemakers, Class of 2021 decorated caps, etc.
The night of graduation, I emailed the school board and superintendent to inform them of what happened and ask how they will ensure this never happens again with any other Native students.
I’ve received apologies from our school board president Margo Bellamy and Superintendent Deena Bishop, and have spoken with my son’s principal multiples times — both he and the superintendent are deeply upset that this happened and highly motivated to ensure it never happens to another Native student again.
Per my request, the principal and superintendent are apologizing to my son directly, and the principal reached out to all district principals to ensure this doesn’t happen again as graduation season rolls on.
Later that day, the superintendent informed me that Anchorage School District has immediately directed all schools to allow cultural regalia, no matter what the regulation states, and is looking to align their practices with the new policies and do right by Alaska’s first people.
I’ve asked that West change graduation protocols for future ceremonies to specifically address Native students’ cultural regalia rights with staff and seek district-wide change to operationalize this practice.
When speaking to Dr. Bishop, I asked that district leadership reform the well-intended but unjust Cultural Regalia policy so that Native families no longer have to seek “approval” to honor their cultures in celebrating this important milestone; they will be taking up this matter within the month.
Additionally, when directly asked, the superintendent committed to me that ASD will implement training for their educators about Alaska Native peoples, cultures and histories so that an incident like this will never happen again.
This incident and others like it don’t occur in a vacuum — they are symptomatic of the lack of education about these histories and the systemic devaluing of Alaska Native cultures. This moment represents an important opportunity for all Alaskans to learn more about the painful history of the education system we have all inherited and may signal the right time for us to consider policy and laws that mandate this re-education, statewide.
So, how can our community get involved right now? Contact the School Board or testify at an upcoming meeting to express your support of removing the requirement for Alaska Native families to seek “approval” of their cultural regalia through the district’s policy, and of ASD working closely with the Alaska Native community to transform both its student curriculum and annual staff training to include meaningful and accurate information regarding Alaska Native cultures and history.
All Alaskans live on Native lands and should know about and value our cultural knowledge and practices, so incidents like these never harm another Native family. Our city and state are stronger when our Indigenous peoples thrive.
Ayyu Qassataq is the vice president and Indigenous Operations Director for First Alaskans Institute, as well as an Anchorage School District parent and former graduate. She is Iñupiaq, from Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet). Her master’s thesis research centered on missionization and the formation of the education system in Alaska, and its ongoing impacts to Native students and families.
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