How Native American students helped change Utah law on graduation attire

Written by William C. Duncan

June 17, 2022

Last month, The Washington Post profiled two Utah students who made an important difference.

The two students had similar, and frustrating, graduation experiences.

Trinidad Cervantes said she felt humiliated last year on her high school graduation day in Cedar City, Utah, when a teacher pulled her aside at the ceremony and told her she couldn’t wear a beaded cap with an eagle feather in honor of her Native American heritage.

Her aunt, Lou Charles, had spent hours hand-beading decorative edging around the cap in Canyon View High School’s colors of teal, silver and black, said Cervantes, who is a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.

Another aunt had called the school and said she had gotten permission to add the decorations to the cap — a traditional way for Native American students to express their spirituality and cultural pride, Cervantes said.

“But when I got up to the stage, I was told to remove it,” Cervantes said, adding that she was the only one in her class who graduated without a cap after she declined a plain one offered to her.

. . .

Across town at Cedar City High School, Emalyce Kee was also told last year that she couldn’t wear a graduation cap that had been trimmed in gold beadwork by her uncle.

“They said I couldn’t be different from the other kids,” she said.

Kee, who is Diné (Navajo) and Rosebud Sioux, said she thought the rule was unfair, so she hid her decorative cap beneath her graduation gown and put it on at the last minute to receive her diploma.

Cervantes and Kee learned the relevant policies had not been made at the district level, so Cervantes turned to the chairwoman of the Paiute Tribe, who turned to state legislators for help.

In the 2022 legislative session, Rep. Angela Romero sponsored HB 30, Student Tribal Regalia Use Amendments. The bill requires local educational agencies to allow an enrolled or registered “member of a tribe” to wear “tribal regalia” at a graduation ceremony. Tribal regalia is defined as “traditional dress; or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance” such as “tribal symbols; beads; and feathers.”

The law still allows school districts to regulate “student expression,” to preserve a dignified atmosphere at graduation ceremonies.

The bill was approved unanimously in both the House and the Senate.

As a result of the law and efforts by students and families, graduates in other areas were able to wear important cultural and religious objects at graduation.

In May, Alpine School District announced: “Graduating students may be afforded the opportunity to wear objects of religious and cultural significance” although not “representations of drugs, violence, political speech, flags, or other non-religious or non-culturally significant objects.” Jordan School District later allowed for “recognized items of religious or cultural significance.”

This local story is a good illustration of two principles: First, the expansion of rights for religious minorities can expand the rights of others. Second, legislation can be a powerful source of protection for religious freedom.

In a time of contention over religious issues, good news like this is welcome.

More Insights

Connect with Sutherland Institute

Join Our Donor Network