What happened to Tvli Birdshead has happened so many times before.
Every year, it seems, some school somewhere in America tells Native students that they can’t wear their tribal regalia to graduation.
In June 2018, administrators at Midway High School in Texas prevented Tacoda Goodall from walking across the stage at his graduation ceremony wearing a beaded graduation cap with an eagle feather attached—in addition to the school district requiring his mother to obtain a letter from the principal chief of Cherokee Nation in order for him to simply have long hair, which apparently violated the school’s dress code.
Days later, Ariana Baccam, of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Tribe, was left in tears after high school officials in Verona, WI claimed cultural ignorance and told her she could not wear an eagle feather in her cap moments before she was set to walk the stage.
Birdshead, a citizen of the Chickasaw Tribe and descended from three others—the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, Choctaw, and Sioux nations—is a scholarship-winning student and rising artist who is in his senior year at Latta High School in Ada, OK. He’s set to graduate in May and will attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
Months before graduation, Birdshead and his mother put in a request with Latta Public Schools that he be allowed to don an honor cord the Chickasaw Nation bestows upon graduating members in addition to a beaded cap with an eagle feather. When they approached the high school’s principal and the school system’s superintendent, they were not greeted with an understanding tone, but with a hard “no.” Birdshead’s story was first reported by KFOR last week, after which his story blew up on Native Twitter.
But even though the story is familiar, Birdshead is trying to change the ending.
When Birdshead spoke to Splinter this week, he said the KFOR interview was arranged in part by his mother and her fiancé, who have both steadfastly supported his desire to wear a beaded cap and eagle feather at his graduation. Birdshead said while he “anticipated” the school’s decision and found the local news interview “nerve-wracking,” he kept reminding himself that the fight was larger than himself.
“I’m doing this not just for me, but for any Native student that wants to wear an eagle feather or bead their cap,” Birdshead said. “I see stories like this everywhere, like every year. I never thought I would be the one fighting to wear my regalia.”
For him, the fight is rooted in his desire to honor his family and his Indigenous heritage.
“Last year, my cousin, he graduated from Montana,” Birdshead said. “My Auntie, she lives in Oklahoma, she’s the one who beaded the cap for my cousin. And we took it up there and drove all the way to Montana with my mom and my brother. We brought [the cap] to him and that meant a lot to me. I also really wanted to graduate with a beaded cap and wear an eagle feather, because my Grandpa on my dad’s side, he was a Cheyenne and Arapaho chief, and I wanted to make him proud.”
Birdshead said about 20 percent of the Latta High School graduating class are Native students, though he said compared to nearby high schools, that number relatively is low.
When asked about the school’s decision, Latta Public Schools superintendent Cliff Johnson cited rules about “decorum” at the event.
“The decision to deny the request was based on school policy that only allows school issued decorum to be worn at graduation,” Johnson said in an email to Splinter. “Mrs. Birdshead has verbally requested to discuss the policy with the School Board and arrangements are being made so that she may do so. I hope this clarifies the situation.”
While Johnson said the matter is under review, he did not provide specifics—as it turns out, Birdshead told Splinter the School Board declined to meet with his mother in the coming month. Instead, they told her they would hear her make her son’s case on May 6, just two weeks before graduation. (If one would want to contact the school, for whatever reason, information on how to do that can be found here.)
“I think there will be some policy changes in the next meeting, just because of how this blew up,” Birdshead said, citing a particularly viral tweet sharing the KFOR story from All My Relations podcast co-host Dr. Adrienne Keene.
It’s worth emphasizing again that this issue isn’t unique to Birdshead and Latta High School. A cursory review of similar cases over the past two years revealed that while some states and school district are updating their rules to be more inclusive of Native traditions, school systems across the United States still routinely prevent Native students from donning tribe-specific regalia for graduation—but the situation is improving.
In states boasting sizable Native delegations in the state legislature, recent bills and school district policy updates aimed at ensuring Native students are not discriminated against during graduation ceremonies have cropped up, especially in the past two years.
In Tucson, AZ, for instance, Native students from the local pueblos and tribes fought Tucson Unified School District for years on the issue, with students forced to individually seek special permission in order to wear their regalia for graduation. But in late March, TUSD finally updated its policy to allow the practice for all Native students, axing the waiver requirement.
Similarly, in Bismarck, ND, Chelsea Schmitt and five other students petitioned the school district in 2015 for the right to place eagle feathers in their graduation caps. Four years later, Bismarck Public Schools updated its policy to allow all Native students to do so, and Schmitt found herself testifying before the state legislature in favor of a bill that would extend that option to all of the state’s school districts. The bill passed both chambers and was signed by Gov. Doug Burgum in late March.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive proclamation in September 2018 to enshrine the same rights for Native students in the state. Even in Oklahoma, where Latta Public Schools is located, other school districts—like Lawton Public Schools did two weeks ago—have updated their policy to allow tribal regalia at graduation.
“I really would love to wear full regalia to graduation, and not just under my graduation gown,” Birdshead said. “But to walk across the stage and be actually proud of who I am and not suppress that feeling of pride in myself. I would just really hope that Latta and other schools would allow their Native students to be aware of who they are and where they come from and the pride that their ancestors have.”
As is the case with nearly every issue facing Native peoples, a lack of cultural understanding or basic United States history undergirds the actions of these districts. Birdshead’s story won’t be the last one, probably not even for this graduation season. But his hope is that by fighting and talking about the discriminatory policies, eventually American institutions will make strides, and come graduation, Native students like him will finally be allowed to enjoy the momentous occasion while embracing all parts of their identity.
Correction, 7:57 p.m. ET: This post originally said that Bismarck was located in South Dakota, not North Dakota and that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, not North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, had signed legislation stemming from events there.