Education , Government

Proposed bill would add protections for Native American high school students

Photo caption: A bill filed in the Oklahoma legislature would explicitly add wearing tribal regalia at a high school graduation to the activities covered under the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act. Osage News 2017 File Photo

OKLAHOMA CITY — A bill has been filed for the Oklahoma legislature’s upcoming session that would protect the rights of Native public high school students who want to wear traditional regalia to graduation.

House Bill 2783 would explicitly add wearing tribal regalia at a high school graduation to the activities covered under the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act. As drafted, the amendments would not allow individual schools or entire districts to enact policies that bar students from wearing regalia on the grounds of promoting aesthetic uniformity.

The measure is sponsored by Rep. Collin Walke (D-Oklahoma City), the vice chairman of the Native American Caucus and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Rep. Walke filed the bill after being contacted at the end of the 2019 legislative session about a school district near Ada barring a Native student from wearing regalia at graduation.

“Under existing law, it’s already permissible,” he said. “For the sake of clarification, I submitted this bill to ensure we don’t have incidents like this again.”

Several Oklahoma school districts have balked at allowing eagle feathers, moccasins or other forms of traditional Indigenous attire at graduation in recent years, including Caney Valley, Sapulpa and Vian.

With other districts allowing the practice, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter sent a letter in May to State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, requesting her department advise school leaders about Native students’ rights under ORFA.

“Unfortunately, it appears school districts across the state are continuing to tell Native American students that they cannot wear … eagle feathers on their graduation cap,” Hunter wrote. “Accordingly, I seek to inform all school districts in the state on my views of what Oklahoma law requires, as I did with the Vian school district. As chief law enforcement officer of this state, it is my duty to both protect the rights of Oklahoma citizens as provided for by law and to advise other governmental entities on the appropriate compliance. It is my hope that …  you will inform all of the school districts in the state of their obligations under the law.”

Rep. Trey Caldwell (R-Lawton) has filed a similar measure as well.

The earliest Walke or Caldwell’s bill could be assigned to a committee is Feb. 3, when the 2020 legislative session begins with Gov. Kevin Stitt’s State of the State address.