In California, Students Have the Right to Wear Tribal Regalia at Graduation
In California, you have a right to wear tribal regalia and other items of cultural or religious significance at your high school graduation! For more information on the law and how to defend your rights, visit My School, My Rights!
School graduations are a pivotal achievement. For Indigenous students in particular, graduating from primary or secondary school is a momentous occasion that signifies not only academic achievement but also proof of community resilience after centuries of government oppression.
California state law specifically protects students’ right to wear “traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment at school graduation ceremonies.”
But every year, we hear from students and advocates that schools are denying students’ rights to wear tribal regalia at commencement. California Indian Legal Services, the ACLU of Northern California & ACLU of Southern California have created a “Tribal Regalia at Commencement Toolkit” to help students and advocates defend their rights and recorded a short Tribal Regalia at Commencement Webinar to review the resources.
Students Have a Legal Right to Wear Tribal Regalia at Graduation Ceremonies in California
California Education Code § 35183.1 specifically protects students’ right to wear “traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment at school graduation ceremonies.” This law went into effect on January 1, 2019. This law applies to all students in California.
In addition, state and federal civil rights laws protect your rights to expressive and religious conduct, and your freedom of expression as a student.
For more information about the law and your rights, see our full guide at My School, My Rights: Student Rights To Tribal, Cultural, And Religious Objects At Graduation.
About Tribal Regalia
Tribal regalia are culturally and religiously significant items worn by some Indigenous people to honor important events or ceremonies, including rites of passage like graduation. Tribal regalia can include a broad range of clothing and adornments made from a broad range of materials. Some tribal regalia are passed down through generations or considered sacred or living objects.
In the context of high school graduations, Indigenous students wear diverse items including beaded mortarboards or eagle feathers on graduation caps. Others have worn traditional moccasins and leggings, basketcaps, or leis.
You can read more about the importance of tribal regalia and more specifically, the importance of wearing tribal regalia at graduation by Los Angeles-based student, Job, in their article: "Preserving Our Cultural Rights at Graduation."
How to Advocate for and Exercise Your Right to Tribal Regalia at Graduation
Students’ right to wear tribal regalia at graduation is protected by California law. There are ways to fight if your school tells you otherwise.
- You can advocate for yourself or your student by informing your school of your rights and asking your school principal to respect them. Use this letter template to send to your school.
- You can also call the ACLU of Northern California’s Intake Line at (415) 621-2488 or submit your complaint online, or call the ACLU of Southern California’s Intake Line at 213-977-5253.
Access these and other resources in the “Tribal Regalia at Commencement Toolkit.”
About Indigenous Students’ Rights to Wear Tribal Regalia at Graduation
Since the time of contact, governments, churches, and other powerful actors have used the education system as a tool of attempted genocide.
Through federal Indian Boarding schools, which operated from the early 1800s to the 1960s, thousands of Indigenous children were torn from their homes with the goal of forced assimilation. Indigenous children as young as four years old were sent to institutions, often hundreds of miles away, that were designed to destroy their Indigenous identities. Any marker of Indigeneity — language, clothing, hair, even children’s names — was prohibited.
These institutions sought to separate Indigenous children from their families and tribes and forcibly assimilate them by denying their rights to culture, language, and religion. The long-lasting, intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities is still felt today.
Denying Indigenous students the right to wear tribal regalia and other objects of cultural significance today is a painful reminder of the past, compounding the violence and oppression that Indigenous students and their communities have already suffered.
Graduation ceremonies are especially meaningful for Indigenous students, who, because of this persecution, face many barriers to academic success in public schools today. Schools do not foster school climates where indigenous students can thrive and Indigenous students rarely see themselves or their cultures reflected in the classroom.
Today, Native American students across the country and throughout California continue to face disproportionately higher rates of exclusionary discipline, chronic absenteeism, and lower academic outcomes than their non-Indigenous peers. ACLU NorCal’s report Failing Grade: The Status of Native American Education in Humboldt County details some of these egregious disparities.
Resources for Students Outside of California
The ACLU national’s Know Your Rights page offers information about students’ rights across the country and provides additional letter templates to help advocate for those rights with their school districts. This Tribal Regalia Campaign page further highlights the importance of this issue to Indigenous students and families, as well as efforts to pass state laws protecting the right to wear tribal regalia. The Share Your Story page will allow Indigenous students and their families to share with us their challenges and successes relating to this issue.