Native American student protests outside graduation after being banned from wearing traditionally decorated cap

A Native American high school senior was not allowed to walk at graduation because she chose to wear a hand-beaded cap. (Photo: ABC 15)

A Native American student was told she couldn't walk at graduation due to her bead-decorated cap, which her father spent a week hand-threading. The beads, an important aspect of her heritage, "signifies and honors the spiritual role that family plays in the graduate's success," according to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). However, the Dysart Unified School District stands by the decision to bar the senior from walking, as they claim decorated caps and gowns have never been allowed at their commencement ceremonies.

While hundreds of her peers at Valley Vista High School in Surprise, Arizona, attended the ceremony, LaRissa Waln, a member of the Sioux Tribe, and her family stood outside the State Farm Stadium in protest.

For weeks, Waln and her family have challenged the policy, which they say they have yet to see a written version of, over allowing her to attend wearing her beaded cap, according to ABC 15. The student remained hopeful until the day of graduation that the school district would change its mind.

Waln's vice principal stopped her at the doors of State Farm Stadium and informed her she would be able to walk if she exchanged her decorated cap for a blank one, but Waln chose to remain faithful to her heritage.

"I was sad for a moment," she told ABC15. "But that just means I get to be out here and stand up for what is right."

Her father, Bryan Waln, told the station: "It's not just for her — we're fighting for all the ones that follow her. There are other Native American kids out here that would love to practice their religion on graduation day."

Indeed, just last month, Oklahoma high school senior Tvli Birdshead was told he would not be able to wear his beaded cap or his eagle feather to accept his diploma because his school's "student handbook only allows school issued items to be worn at graduation ceremonies."

Birdshead's mother, Taloa, told Yahoo Lifestyle at the time, "When a family member is asked or offers to bead that cap it is a high honor, and that beadwork takes time and a lot of thought about the person they are beading for. The colors and design are carefully chosen. The eagle feather is very spiritual. It is given by the tribe to honor the graduate for their academic achievement. It is to be worn to show who they are, what Native Nations they represent."

The Waln family, in the days leading up to graduation, reached out to the ACLU, who sent the school district a letter. It stated, in part: "Under Arizona's Free Exercise of Religion Act (FERA), A.R.S 41-1493 et seq., the school may not deny Ms. Waln's request accommodation. She must be permitted to wear these religiously significant items on her graduation cap."

Dysart Unified School District responded to the letter, writing: "The District's commencement dress code requires all students to wear a cap and gown with tassel without adornment or alteration... In addition, the commencement dress code is intended to show respect for the formality of the ceremony, unity for the graduation Class of 2019, and to avoid disruption of the commencement ceremonies that is likely to occur if students are allowed to alter their graduation cap or gown."

They went on to deny ACLU’s request to allow Waln to wear her beaded cap, but suggested she could wear her eagle feather in her hair or under her gown.

"Our regalia, our star quilts, things that we do," one of Waln's relatives told KNXV, "it's for us to celebrate our children when they accomplish things. That's what this is. It's not just because she wanted to decorate her cap and gown — that's not what it was about — it was about celebrating her life."

The Dysart Unified School District provided the following statement to Yahoo Lifestyle: "Yesterday the Dysart Unified School District graduated over 1,800 students from our four high schools. This is the culmination of many years of hard work for them and is a momentous occasion. We congratulate each and every student for their academic accomplishments.”

The statement continued: "Unfortunately, despite being aware of the graduation dress code, a student did arrive with a decorated cap and gown and would not accept the unadorned one we offered her to wear for the ceremony. Because of this, she chose not to walk in the ceremony today. Our District is disappointed that this situation occurred, especially after the school discussed the expectations and met with the family in advance in an effort to resolve their concerns and offer alternative options. She is still a graduate and we will ensure that she receives her diploma for completing high school.

"Dysart could not be more proud of each student that graduated this year, and we wish all of them the best of luck in their future endeavors."

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