How Arizona’s New Law Makes Native American Students “Visible”


A bill promoting visibility among Native American students by allowing them to feel heard during their graduation ceremonies was passed in April.

HB 2705 prohibits schools from establishing a dress code policy that prohibits students from wearing tribal badges or items of cultural significance during a graduation ceremony.

It was added to previous legislation allowing students to wear cultural accessories during extracurricular activities.

State Representative Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren District 7 took the initiative to pass the bill after assuming the post of state representative, Arlando Teller, who had originally sponsored it.

READ ALSO: Here’s how Ramona Farms keeps Native American culture alive

The subject of the bill emerged after a student in the Dysart school district was turned away upon graduation in 2019 for decorating her cap with tribal insignia, according to Blackwater-Nygren.

“It was extremely disappointing and frustrating for this student and his family,” said Blackwater-Nygren.

While Native Americans have the lowest high school graduation rates of any minority, Blackwater-Nygren said graduation ceremonies are a milestone for Native students.

She said graduation ceremonies give Indigenous students the opportunity to showcase the strength of their culture.

“Wearing badges shows a sense of pride and resilience that is embedded in our cultures, that has survived assimilation attempts and genocide,” said Blackwater-Nygren.

Sumaya Quitugua is the secretary of the Phoenix Indian Youth Council, representing indigenous youth as a student at Perry High School. Quitugua has seen videos and photos on social media of students happy to receive their diplomas and of students deprived of their diplomas due to the dress code.

She said they wore their badges, feathers or a handprint on their face, which depicts missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“When we wear our clothes, it is we who use our voices without having to say a word,” said Quitugua.

Tribal clothing cannot be purchased from H&M or Ross, Quitugua said. Jewelry and badges are passed down from generation to generation.

“It strengthens me,” Quitugua said. “A lot of my jewelry comes from my grandmother and my great-grandmother who are very strong women. “

Native American scholar Lynnann Yazzie works for the Phoenix Union High School District, which includes 21 high schools. She oversees the Native American education program.

NAEP provides assistance to Native American students in a district of about 1,300 Native students and more than 50 different tribes represented among students and staff, according to Yazzie.

“Knowing that we have so many students and staff in our district, we wholeheartedly support our students being able to express their identities,” Yazzie said.

Yazzie said it’s damaging for students to be told they can’t wear their eagle feather or pearls on their caps.

“It makes it seem like a part of them needs to be hidden when it’s something that should be celebrated,” Yazzie said.

She said she noticed an overall invisibility among Native Americans, as demographics rarely provide numbers on Native Americans and instead lump them into an “other” category.

“Our district is working more on this visibility and has encouraged students to wear their badges,” said Yazzie.

If students know they can show their identity without getting in trouble, Yazzie said it can lead to their own pride “when you feel invisible in a school system.”

While Arizona school districts are made up of a wide range of diverse student race, religion, sexual orientation and gender, Yazzie said legislation like this is key to preventing schools to prohibit the expression of this diversity.

“I would love to see every school in every district celebrate the diversity they have in their schools,” Yazzie said.


About Marjorie C. Hudson

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