Native American students at Tucson’s largest school district can now wear culturally significant garb to their graduation ceremonies, thanks to student activist efforts.
The TUSD Governing Board voted unanimously on Tuesday to allow Native American students to don tribal clothing at graduation without prior district approval, as the previous policy required.
“It’s our right as native, indigenous people,” said Madeline Jeans, a Pueblo High School alumna who spearheaded the effort to allow native regalia before she graduated from high school in 2017. “It’s our way of life.”
Twenty or so Native American students and allies crowded the Tucson Unified boardroom on Tuesday to celebrate the policy change that had been years in the making.
Until Tuesday, the district required students to ask for permission to wear tribal regalia to TUSD graduation ceremonies, which many Native American students, parents and community members thought was problematic and unjust.
“The land we’re on is all O’odham land,” Jeans said. “We shouldn’t even have to ask.”
The policy change doesn’t just impact Native American students, though — students from any diverse background can now wear clothing relevant to their culture, according to the policy language.
Board member Kristel Foster first brought the change to the Governing Board in December at the request of Jeans and current Pueblo senior Lourdes Pereira.
“There was a lot of energy on this board to get this document right,” Foster said at the meeting.
Pereira and Jeans told the board in December that Native American students shouldn’t have to forgo wearing the sacred clothing representative of their cultural roots.
“If I can wear Native American regalia during school, I don’t see why I can’t wear it during graduation,” Pereira said at the December meeting. “Students should be able to wear Native regalia at graduation without restrictions or permission. Others should be able to wear religious attire.”
The Governing Board voted in December to temporarily allow students to don culturally relevant clothing at the district’s December graduation, but tabled making any permanent policy changes until Tuesday night’s board meeting.
Foster was initially hesitant about including a blanket approval of Native American garb in the policy language — she thought it might lead to some students appropriating cultures they don’t belong to.
Jeans, the Pueblo alumna, said asking the district for approval to wear something so intrinsic to your culture has been frustrating and emotionally exhausting for students in her community. She had friends who graduated before her, she said, whose appeals to wear items specific to their tribe were denied by TUSD.
So seeing the Governing Board unanimously approve the policy change — almost two years after she and other students first proposed it — is relieving.
“Never give up on trying to fight for what you believe in,” Jeans said. “We’re planting the seed for kids to be who they are.”