New law reinforces Native American students’ rights

Greta Taylor
Staff Writer

Last month on Native American Day Gov. Gavin Newsom signed 13 bills in support of the Native American community, two of which are specifically for Native American students.

Among them Assembly Bill 945 will ensure indigenous students are allowed to wear traditional tribal regalia at graduation ceremonies.

“There’s education that has to happen … especially if they don’t have a large Native American population near them,” Steven Estrada, vice chairman of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians, said.

“Culture is really important,” Kaylee Licona, sophomore criminology major said. “It’s very disheartening not being able to fully express your culture.”

The tribal regalia bill was authored by Assembly Member James Ramos, D-Rancho Cucamonga, who is the first Native American elected to the California Legislature.

“California is moving forward and … Californian Native Americans are not alone in the battle to overcome a history of genocide, enslavement, and other grave injustices,” Ramos said in a recent press conference.

According to the tribal regalia bill, over 300,000 Native American and Alaska Native students attended California public schools during the 2020 school year.

In fact, wearing tribal regalia at graduation ceremonies is a protected civil right under the U.S. Constitution, and the California Constitution.

“The bill doesn’t add anything to ( existing law),” said Placido Gomez, associate dean for academic affairs at the ULV College of Law. “ It says, ‘Hey the (colleges) are not following the law, and we need to look into that.’”

Gomez is familiar with the Navajo traditions in his work with the American Indian Law Center.

According to the text of the bill, there have been many complaints on behalf of civil rights organizations and Native American students, who have been denied the right to wear traditional regalia by school administrators during their graduation ceremonies despite the Constitutional protections.

“These items are not worn for the sake of decoration. Beading is significant and, “eagle feathers hold a sacred meaning and represent a mile store or an honor,” Estrada said. “There’s education that has to happen with these districts especially if they don’t have a large Native American population near them.”

Schools still have the authority to prohibit items that would cause substantial disruption of the ceremony.

“Anything that we do that is a shift from what we have previously, known people will question its validity,” Dan Kennan, adjunct professor of sociology and anthropology, said. “Being able to have the cultural connection to their community in calming a space and a place for that to be happening. It’s an incredibly enriching experience. It’s also a teaching moment for the community at large.”

Earlier this year, Arizona and Oregon passed similar bills that require schools to allow Native American students to wear culturally significant items to public school events, including graduations.

The tribal regalia bill establishes a 10-member task force, eight of whom must be Native American to help represent California’s 110 federally recognized Indian tribes.

The task force will develop recommendations for best practices and policies for how to implement all aspects of law related to wearing traditional tribal regalia by April 1, 2023.

Greta Taylor can be reached at greta.taylor@laverne.edu.

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