This past week I attended the Native American Graduation Ceremony at Humboldt State University located in Arcata, CA The Indian Tribal & Educational Personnel Program (ITEPP) has been at the core of the support for Natives at HSU and I am one of their minions. They have now branched out into a support program that includes the Indian Natural Resource, Science and Engineering Program (INERSEP) a Native focused Masters in social work. Students are gifted with a massive researchable collection of materials and documents, much of it online.
But I digress…
The community came together to share in the celebration for the achievements of 20 undergraduates getting their Bachelors degree and 5 receiving a Masters. Each of these students represents another shining light that illuminates the pathway forward for American Indian Tribes and communities. Our Ancestors knew the power of western education making it a major component of even the earliest treaties and negotiations.
In the face of this positive achievement the same week saw another slap in the face of Native students. In their infinite “wisdom/stupidity” The Salupa High School in Oklahoma opined that Liseanne Yazzie would not be allowed to wear her traditional Diné moccasins to her graduation. Instead of letting her display her heritage the school district deemed her footwear as boots and as such was banned under district policy. Here is a copy of the email I sent the superintendent and school board:
“Moccasins. Moccasins, are you kidding me?
This is 2016. Have we not gotten past the inherent racism that punishes students for being Native American as exemplified by the boarding school era. You might as well tell her not to braid her hair or wear beaded or silver and turquoise jewelry (oh no I hope I did’t give you any ideas). For many years I have fought school districts that tried to oppress Native students by not allowing them to wear feathers at graduation or to come to school with long hair. This issue is just another slap in the face of young Native woman who is just trying to show dignity by honoring her culture. Perhaps she can help educate those in the school system that not all students come from families where tennis shoes, flip flops, sandals, doc martins, birkenstocks etc, are de rigueur fashion deemed appropriate for graduation night by western society. By refusing Liseanne Yazzie her right to dress in what is considered to be suitable by her community and culture you are saying that Native footwear is substandard and not worthy of public display. Why don’t you just go all the way Hester Pyrnne style and put savage on her graduation robes. Ironically this is happening in the state that takes pride in being sooners who stole Native lands. I encourage you to join the 21st century and embrace the multicultural world that is our new reality. Please don’t trip over your own shoelaces while demeaning the pride Ms. Yazzie feels on this auspicious milestone that you both have worked so hard for her to achieve.”
This spring eighth grades, high schools, community colleges and universities hold another year of graduation ceremonies. Native communities across the country are celebrating each successful student as a victory against the kind of racism this district has displayed. Take this opportunity to find one of these students and tell them how proud you are of their dedication and hard work. Help them find the jobs or continue the next step in their academic careers that they have so richly earned. Remind them that they are the future of their Tribes and the entire Native community is delighted in their accomplishments.
Just my two dentalias’ worth.
André Cramblit is a Karuk Tribal Member from the Klamath and Salmon rivers in northwest California and the Operations Director of the Northern California Indian Development Council. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Kyle in Arcata, California.