- By Levi Rickert
Opinion. The recent veto by Oklahoma Governor Kevn Stitt of a bill that protects the right of Native American students to wear tribal regalia and other cultural items during graduation ceremonies drew some raised eyebrows throughout Indian Country this past week.
The fact that Stitt is an enrolled tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation makes his veto confusing, because he should know every single Native American student who graduates from high school is beating the odds that have historically faced our ancestors and their descendants.
I remember the tears that welled in my eyes when each of my three children graduated from high school. The first time it happened, I wondered to myself, “Why the tears?” Then, I remembered how far we have come as a people — and how far we still have to go to get our children educated.
My feelings were not simply emotional, but based on statistics that I knew about as the executive director of an urban Indian center.
Things haven't changed much over the years since my kids graduated. The most recent data available (2018-2019 school year) from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, and Common Core of Data show that Native American students have the lowest percentage of high school graduation rates compared with students who are White, Black, Asian Americans or Hispanics.
Native Americans graduate at a rate of 74.3% versus their white counterparts’ rate of 89.4%, according to the data. The rates are based on students who graduate with a regular high school diploma within four years of starting ninth grade.
The graduation disparity contributes to Native Americans’ ability to earn a decent living. There is a direct correlation between those who do not have a high school diploma and those who live in poverty. According to Statista, 27.2% of those who live in poverty do not have a high school diploma versus 13.2% for those in poverty with a high school diploma.
The data is clear: graduation from high school is a big deal. That’s why Native American students are often gifted items like eagle feathers, beaded caps, cords, and other tribal regalia as a means of pride and gratitude for their educational achievements. Even so, there has been resistance to letting Native American students celebrate their heritage during graduation ceremonies.
While it isn’t fair, it’s also not surprising in states and towns where there is very little Native population. But this is Oklahoma, where Native Americans represent nearly 10% of the state’s population.
On Friday, I spoke with the bill’s sponsor, Oklahoma state Senator John Montgomery, a Republican who represents Lawton, the homelands of the Comanche Nation and Fort Sill Apache Tribe.
Montgomery explained that the bill originated in the Oklahoma House of Representatives by Rep. Trey Caldwell after a constituent asked him to push state legislation to allow for wearing eagle feathers and other forms of Native American regalia.
“I certainly recognize and respect the fact that this is something that is really important to Native Americans. There was a lot of inconsistency across the state, and we have a sizable Native American population in our state. And some of the local school districts opposed it and it didn’t make a lot of sense in some regards,” Montgomery told me.
I asked if there are the votes to override Stitt’s veto, which takes two-thirds of the state senate. In Oklahoma that would be 33 votes. Montgomery is confident the votes are there.
In an attempt to explain his reasoning to veto the bill, Stitt stated that it would open a Pandora’s box and other groups would attempt to wear their culturally relevant items at graduation ceremonies. The decision on what graduates are allowed to wear during commencement ceremonies is up to local school boards, he said.
Montgomery told me that after the governor’s veto, some local school boards jumped on the bandwagon to forbid Native students from wearing feathers. Suddenly, a vocal minority is opposing the legislation. To me, it appears that the governor is the one who opened Pandora's box.
I hope that Montgomery is right and there are votes to override the veto. It’s already clear that the majority of Oklahoma’s legislature — which is mostly non-Native — understands and agrees that Native Americans graduating from high school deserve to be celebrated. It is unfortunate that Stitt does not.
In my circle of family and friends in Michigan, a question is often asked among us when meeting someone who is Native American for the first time: Was he/she raised Indian? The question is posed to inquire about the new acquaintance’s familiarity with our traditional ways or Native American culture.
I don’t know Kevin Stitt. And, I don’t work for a tribal enrollment office, so I cannot say who is a tribal citizen or who isn’t. But I will say for a man who is an enrolled Cherokee citizen living among 300,000-plus Native Americans in Oklahoma, it does not appear he was “raised Indian.”
His veto of the graduation regalia legislation leads me to one of two conclusions: He doesn’t understand how important it is to Native American families in Oklahoma — or he does understand, but just doesn’t care.
Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.
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