In the days before graduating from El Reno High School in El Reno, Oklahoma, Jonathan Birdshead was gifted a hand-beaded mortar board to honor his Native American heritage during the ceremony.
Everything seemed fine until a school official singled Birdshead out during a practice of the ceremony and said that the cap was in violation of the dress code. Birdshead's aunt Victoria Arapaho Lakota photographed the exchange, which happened last week, and posted it to Facebook. She said the school seemed to have no issue with having an "Indian" as its school mascot.
In a statement to Native News Online, El Reno superintendent Craig McVay explained that the school district had a strict policy against the customization of mortar boards regardless of a student's heritage. Native students, McVay said, were allowed to adorn their caps with a single eagle feather.
"Our intention is for students to respect and understand the cap’s symbolism. To allow decorations on the cap for one would open it up for all," he said. "We do, however, allow Native American students to wear their traditional clothing, moccasins, and regalia under their robes if they prefer."
The graduation ceremony is a celebratory event, but it is also a serious milestone in our students’ lives, and we want them to be cognizant of this fact. We deeply value our relationship with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation, as well as other tribal entities, and we will continue to work closely with them in educating our Native American students.
In response to McVay, Eddie Hamilton, governor of the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes, penned an open letter stating that while the Tribes wanted to support the school's decisions, the policy regarding Native students was somewhat unclear.
"It has been brought to our attention that there has been some confusion supporting our tribal students who will be graduating and what they are allowed to wear," Hamilton said. "The policy allows students to wear traditional clothing to include regalia, beadwork, moccasins, and eagle feathers. It also states that no student can alter the top of the graduation cap."
On the day of the graduation itself, Birdshead chose not to wear his cap, but rather carry it. He was allegedly not allowed to cross the stage and receive his diploma.