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Beaded Mortarboard

The beaded mortarboard that Kylei Big Bow wore at her 2018 graduation from Polson High School.

With Polson High School graduation less than a week away, three groups are calling on the district to change its rules on tribal regalia at the ceremony.

Native students — about a third of seniors at Polson High this year — often celebrate graduation by wearing beaded mortarboards, eagle feathers, ribbon dresses and other traditional regalia at the ceremony. A 2017 Montana law protects their right to do so — but Polson School District policy requires students to get approval beforehand.

Superintendent Rex Weltz told the Missoulian that this policy was meant to screen out offensive items, and that they approve most regalia, only consulting the district’s Indian Education Committee when questions of taste arise.

But last month, a Native school district employee and recent alumni cried foul at the practice. And on Monday, the ACLU of Montana, Western Native Voice and the Native American Rights Fund sent a joint letter to Polson High School Principal Pete Hamilton and the school board, asking them to drop the approval requirement.

Specifically, they asked that the district change its policy “in a way that unequivocally allows Native American students to wear traditional regalia at graduation without any prior restraint or approval.”

“Polson High School’s policy requiring pre-approval for traditional regalia runs afoul of the letter and spirit of Montana law," wrote the ACLU’s Lillian Alvernaz and the Native American Rights Fund’s David Gover.

Echoing concerns raised previously, they asserted that “it is impermissible and improper for anyone other than the individual students to make determinations regarding what is culturally important to and appropriate for them.” They further wrote that “requiring students — especially students from historically marginalized cultures — to schedule a special visit with a non-Native principal presents an additional barrier to full enjoyment of the law.”

This isn’t Polson High School’s first clothing controversy. It drew a social media firestorm in 2016, when students were photographed wearing “White Power” and Confederate flag T-shirts (that incident came amid a "color war" competition where each class wore a designated color; the district denounced the messages). In addition to requiring approval for tribal regalia, district policy prohibits wearing items that promote drug or alcohol use, violence, sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation.

Weltz said he didn’t want students trying to extend the law’s protections for “objects of cultural significance” to questionable items. “The last thing we want to do is have a kid, you know, glue a bunch of antlers to their mortarboard and say, ‘Well, this is culturally significant.’ … (or) gluing a beer can to their mortarboard and saying ‘Oh, it's significant,’” he said last week.

In their letter, Alvernaz and Gover wrote that in the event a student came with offensive attire, the district’s existing approach of replacing a non-approved mortarboard with a plain one gave an “adequate remedy.”

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The Missoulian asked the ACLU to specify what objects it considered offensive, and therefore worthy of being banned. Alvernaz referred back to Weltz’s comments as examples of the school district’s take on offensive items, and emphasized that “our interest is to protect the rights of Native students to wear traditional regalia if they choose to do so.”

“In no level, at no event, is Native American regalia inappropriate,” said Ta’jin Perez with Western Native Voice. “There’s no case where anything that is beaded, where there’s feathers adorned. … There’s never any case where that’s offensive.”

Alvernaz wrote that “we are hopeful that the school will do the right thing on its own, but if not, all options — including litigation — are on the table.”

Asked for comment, Weltz wrote in an email that “the Polson School District welcomes the ACLU to review our practices and looks forward to working with them.”

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