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The school made her take off her graduation cap with tribal regalia. So she got the law changed.

'For Native communities, it's not just about the regalia—this has a symbolic and spiritual element as well. It's about their families and it's about honor and respect.'

The school made her take off her graduation cap with tribal regalia. So she got the law changed.
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/nirat

Trinidad Cervantes felt humiliated on her high school graduation day in Cedar City, Utah, last year when a teacher pulled her aside during the ceremony and told her she couldn't wear the cap her aunt had spent hours hand-beading to honor her Native American heritage. The crushing incident occurred despite another aunt calling the school beforehand to get permission to add the decorations—an eagle feather and a beaded decorative edging in Canyon View High School's colors of teal, silver and black—to the cap, Cervantes told The Washington Post. The teen, who is a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, had hoped to wear the adorned hat to the ceremony as it was a traditional way for Native American students to express their spirituality and cultural pride.



 

"But when I got up to the stage, I was told to remove it," said Cervantes, who added that she was the only one in her class who graduated without a cap after she declined a plain one that was offered to her. "Everybody was watching on live stream as I had to take it off, and when I returned to my seat, I was crying. It ruined my graduation day." Addressing the incident, Principal Dennis Heaton said that while sacred eagle feathers were allowed on graduation tassels, students were not permitted to have beadwork on caps.



 

"There may have been a miscommunication," Heaton said. "As long as I've been an administrator, we haven't allowed students to put anything on their caps because things had been put on that were inappropriate. The policy wasn't about Native Americans—it was about having some control over what people could put on their caps." He added that this policy had never been an issue at the high school until last year. Meanwhile, the incident motivated Cervantes to make sure that what happened to her did not happen to her younger sister, Taina Cervantes, who is currently a sophomore, when it came time for her to graduate.



 

The 19-year-old revealed that when she and her family contacted the Iron County School District to express their dismay over how she was treated at the graduation, they were told that the district did not control local graduation ceremonies. Determined to make a difference, they then got in touch with the Paiute Tribe's chairwoman, Corrina Bow. This proved a huge turning point as Bow convinced Utah lawmakers Rep. Angela Romero (D) and Sen. Jani Iwamoto (D) to sponsor a bill this year giving Native American students the right to wear tribal regalia and other items of cultural and spiritual significance at high school commencements and other events.



 


Their efforts bore fruit last month, when Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB30 into law, making it illegal to prevent Indigenous students from wearing cultural regalia at school ceremonies.
With the passing of the bill, Utah joined states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, Oregon, Minnesota, Washington, South Dakota and North Dakota in legalizing the practice. "Off and on over the years, I'd heard about tribal member students who were prevented from decorating their caps in honor of their heritage," said Bow, 61, adding that her own granddaughter wasn't allowed to wear regalia on her graduation cap. "I knew it was time to really push for a change."



 

Pointing to a 2020 study that shows Indigenous teens are two to three times more likely to drop out of school than their white peers, she said: "Because so many of them don't stay in school, why penalize them when they do? Decorating their caps and allowing them to celebrate their heritage helps to make graduation into something special for them." Romero agreed, stating: "For Native communities, it's not just about the regalia—this has a symbolic and spiritual element as well. It's about their families and it's about honor and respect. No Native student should have to face barriers in honoring their culture and their spirituality."



 

Cervantes said that the bill-signing she attended with her family on April 14 helped ease the disappointment she felt on her graduation day last year. "I'm glad this will help another person because I sure had a damper put on my own celebration," she said.

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