Navajo leaders outraged after an Indigenous student’s tribal regalia was removed at graduation

A school official at Farmington High School speaks with graduate Genesis White Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, before taking away her personalized graduation cap and replacing it with a generic one. White Bull had adorned her cap with beads and an eagle feather, culturally significant tribal regalia. Screenshot via Facebook

Graduation season is typically a time for celebrating the success of students making it through their education programs. 

For some Indigenous students, part of that celebration includes having tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance as part of their cap and gown during the graduation ceremony. 

In Arizona, Indigenous students are protected under state law. In 2021, then-Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2705 into law, barring public schools from preventing Indigenous students from wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at graduation ceremonies.

Not all states have similar laws to protect Indigenous students. New Mexico’s lawmakers say they passed legislation to prevent incidents like this from occurring, but it’s now unclear if that applies to a case garnering attention in Farmington, New Mexico.

On May 13, Genesis White Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, was standing for the national anthem alongside her graduating class at the Farmington High School graduation ceremony when two unidentified school faculty members approached her to confiscate her graduation cap.

In video footage shared across social media, White Bull is seen being instructed to remove her graduation cap, which was embellished with an eagle plume and beaded around the rim.

Brenda White Bull, Genesis’ mother, shared the experience with the Navajo Nation Council and reported that school officials later cut the plume from her daughter’s cap using scissors. 

The Navajo Nation Council stated in a press release that Brenda emphasized the sacred significance of the plume, which symbolizes achievement and cultural identity, marking Genesis’ transition into new phases of her life.

The Arizona Mirror contacted the family for an interview, but the family did not respond before publication.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley called Farmington High School’s actions “belittling, humiliating, and demeaning to the student and her family. 

“There is no place for this type of behavior in our educational systems,” Curley said in a press release. “The school officials owe an apology to the student and her family.”

Farmington Municipal Schools, which oversees Farmington High School, released a statement on May 15 in response to the incident.

“During the event, a student’s beaded cap was exchanged for a plain one. The feather was returned intact to the family during the ceremony,” Farmington Municipal Schools wrote in the statement. “The beaded cap was returned after graduation concluded.”

Farmington Municipal Schools referred to the district’s protocols, which state that graduation caps and gowns can not be altered, per the 2023-2024 Student and Parent Handbook.

The handbook does not contain policy language stating any exceptions to these rules. However, the school’s statement noted that students could choose their clothing attire, which included traditional attire to be worn under the graduation cap and gown, regalia, stoles, and feathers in their tassels.

“Students were informed throughout the school year and immediately before graduation of the protocol, including that beaded caps were not allowed,” the statement read. “This standard process helps us set student attire during graduations.”

“While the staff involved were following district guidelines, we acknowledge this could have been handled differently and better,” the statement read. “Moving forward, we will work to refine our processes at the school level.” 

Farmington Municipal Schools stated that the district is also committed to exploring policies that allow for additional appropriate cultural elements in student attire. Indigenous students comprise nearly 34% of the school district’s population.

“School officials across the country need to be reminded who the first Americans are and whose land they inhabit,” Curley said in a press release. “No student in any school should be prohibited from wearing regalia that signifies their cultural and spiritual beliefs.” 

New Mexico passed an anti-discrimination law in 2021 that might protect students against the Farmington schools district policy. 

However, the legal pathway is unclear according to responses from spokespeople in the governor’s offices, state education department, and even lawmakers who wrote the recent law.

Each acknowledged that they were reviewing the law and could only give an official opinion once that was completed. Requests for comment were made to the New Mexico Department of Justice but were not returned in time for publication. 

Sen. Harold Pope (D-Albuquerque), who co-sponsored the law, said the legislation stemmed from the national Crown Act push that targeted to stop policies that discriminate against hair style and texture, with a significant tilt against African Americans. 

New Mexico’s version was written from the views of the Native American cultures present throughout the state, Pope said, and the bill included co-sponsors who are Dińe and Jemez Pueblo.

“We wanted to make sure that we included cultural and religious headdresses to be even more inclusive than your hair alone,” he said. “And what I think is important in that language, when we look at Indigenous cultures, feathers are so cherished and protected and it is part of who they are.”

It’s unclear now if the law will provide White Bull support for any legal action she could take against Farmington Municipal Schools District. 

‘It broke my heart’

After footage of White Bull’s graduation experience spread on social media, it sparked an outpouring of support from Indigenous people and communities across the country. 

Navajo Nation leaders have voiced their support for White Bull and called for schools to support an Indigenous student’s right to wear regalia during their graduation ceremonies, saying denying it is a violation of their rights.

“It broke my heart,” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Crotty told the Arizona Mirror when she learned what happened to the student. 

Crotty said graduations are meant to be one of the happiest moments of a student’s life, and White Bull’s experience was tarnished by having something so important taken away from her. 

“That’s so traumatic and not the best way to approach these situations when it comes to our Native students,” Crotty said. “In a day of celebration, just for her to be attacked like that.”

Crotty said the incident has been reported to the Nation Human Rights Commission, which investigates discrimination within border towns. 

Farmington borders the Navajo Nation, and there is a documented history of racism against Indigenous people living or visiting the city. 

In April 1974, three white Farmington High School students brutally murdered four Navajo men as part of a practice locals called “Indian rolling.”

In response to the murders, Navajo and other Indigenous people held protests in the city of Farmington denouncing the pervasive racism and bigotry of the community.

Due to escalating tensions in Farmington, the New Mexico Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights launched a study of the relationships between the city, San Juan County and the Navajos living in the community and on the Navajo Nation.

The committee concluded that Indigenous people in almost every area suffer from injustice and maltreatment, according to their report. They recommended that city officials and San Juan County officials, in conjunction with Navajo leaders, work together to develop a plan of action to improve the treatment of Navajos living in the border areas of northwestern New Mexico.

The advisory committee conducted another report 30 years later and found that, while race relations may have somewhat improved in the area, racism is still an issue within the city of Farmington.

“There is a lack of understanding of how Native students identify themselves and celebrate themselves,” Crotty said.

She said that it is time to move beyond having conversations about cultural sensitivity for Native students, mainly because incidents like this keep occurring.

“That’s why we want to support mom and the family,” Crotty said. “She does want the school to be accountable, and she does want some sort of apology.” 

Crotty said the staff’s actions at Farmington High School were inappropriate, and immediate action is needed rather than the school trying to justify what happened. 

“The cultural identity of all Native American students attending Farmington High School are protected under the New Mexico Indian Education Act,” she said, adding that what happened was a clear violation of the student’s rights. 

“As we move forward in addressing this issue, we will be meeting with the school board and administration,” Crotty added. 

In New Mexico, the law passed in 2021 is directed specifically to local school districts, but it does not allow the New Mexico Public Education Department to issue any statewide order on local issues, such as what students can wear at graduation ceremonies. 

New Mexico’s 89 school districts decide on those policies, which is why other Indigenous students across the state have different experiences with graduation attire.

New Mexico’s Public Education Secretary, Dr. Aresenio Romero, offered support for White Bull but noted that the issue is the responsibility of the local district.

“I expect the Farmington Superintendent and school district to reevaluate their graduation policies,” Romero said. “I remain committed to promulgating tribal sovereignty and to respecting tribal cultural customs and practices.” 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement Friday saying that it was unacceptable that a student was reprimanded for representing their culture during a time of celebration. 

“I appreciate that the Farmington schools acknowledge that they could have handled this situation better and that their policy may be too restrictive,” she added. “However, it shouldn’t have required the student raising this issue for a school to recognize its lack of inclusivity.”

Navajo Nation First Lady Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren released a statement supporting Indigenous graduating students who wear their cultural and traditional regalia during graduation.

“We stand with our Native graduates this graduation season and their decision to wear their traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance, including eagle feathers, eagle plumes, and beaded graduation caps,” Blackwater-Nygren said in a statement she posted on her Facebook. “Our graduates and families take immense pride in what they choose to wear on graduation day.”

Blackwater Nygren was a guest speaker at the Farmington High School graduation, but she said she was unaware of what occurred until after the graduation. 

“I am deeply disappointed that this happened at a school where we have many Navajo and Native graduates,” she said. “I hope the school learns from this experience and can take corrective measures.”

Blackwater-Nygren said that, for many Indigenous students, deciding what to wear goes far beyond simply deciding what color dress or shoes to wear. For some Indigenous students, it is a day for them to wear their traditional regalia proudly.

“Our regalia reminds us of how far we’ve come as a people; it shows our pride in our culture and how we chose to identify ourselves as Native people,” she said. “Some graduates are the first in their families to graduate or are only one of a few high school graduates in the family. A beaded cap further signifies this symbol of achievement, accomplishment and Native resilience.”

Blackwater-Nygren is familiar with this issue because, as an Arizona State Representative, she helped pass House Bill 2705 through the legislature.

“As graduation season continues, I hope all schools will respect the decision of our Native students to wear their traditional regalia and objects of cultural significance,” Blackwater-Nygren said.

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