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Navajo Nation president signs executive order addressing regalia worn at graduation

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren on Nov. 2, 2023 at Navajo Preparatory School. On Friday, Navajo Nation Buu Nygren signed an executive order calling on schools, on and off the reservation, to allow Navajo students to wear traditional regalia at commencement ceremonies. (Tri-City Record file photo)
Order is direct result of Farmington High incident; school issues apology

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren signed an executive order Friday calling on schools – on and off the reservation – to allow Navajo students to wear traditional regalia at commencement ceremonies, according to a news release from the administration.

“All schools serving Navajo students, whether within or outside the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, shall allow the display of Native cultural and ceremonial regalia at graduation ceremonies,” the order states. “No school, school district, or local community-controlled school policy, whatever the alleged source of authority, shall be interpreted or applied to disallow such display.”

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In addition to the executive order, the governor of New Mexico issued a statement condemning Farmington High School's actions, and the school district issued an apology for the events leading up to the removal of a student's Native American regalia.

The incident mentioned in the release took place at the Farmington High School graduation on Monday, May 13, involving Genesis White Bull, whose beaded cap along with an aópazan – the Lakota term for a plume or feather worn in the hair – were confiscated.

The aópazan was then cut off by unidentified FHS staff and later pulled from a lost-and-found box by staff, damaged, and given to the graduate.

Tri-City Record was present at the commencement and spoke to Brenda White Bull, mother of the graduate, about the incident.

After the cap was taken from the graduate it was requested by Brenda White Bull that she take the aópazan off herself, but it had already been cut by staff, according to the mother.

“You have probably been hearing on the news and social media what happened recently at a school in New Mexico,” Nygren said at a celebration of Page Unified School District championship sports teams. “We asked permission of the superintendent and leadership if I could sign an executive order here saying let's honor our students when they graduate.”

Nygren referred to the order as a way to protect Native students at a pivotal time in their lives, the release said.

“A lot of the times the eagle feathers, the plumes, the beaded caps have prayers and ceremonies that went into them,” he said. “Spiritually, that's what's really strengthening the students, and they want to use them because this might be the only time you ever graduated, so why should we take that away?”

The order reflects the Navajo Nation’s position on this matter involving Native youths toward school districts and beyond, the release said.

Under the Navajo Sovereignty in Education Act of 2005, Navajo youths are protected under Navajo, state and federal laws to display cultural and ceremonial regalia at graduation, according to the release.

Also on Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement in response to the same incident.

Lujan Grisham said New Mexico is a state committed to diversity, “and what happened at the Farmington High School graduation ceremony does not reflect that commitment.”

She further stated that the actions of Farmington High staff were “unacceptable” and that a student should never be “reprimanded for representing their culture during a time of celebration.”

Lujan Grisham further stated that she appreciated the school district acknowledging that it “could have handled this situation better and that their policy may be too restrictive. However, it shouldn’t have required the student raising this issue for a school to recognize its lack of inclusivity.”

Farmington High School graduates Tyler Johnson and Genesis White Bull turn their tassels from right to left during the commencement ceremony on Monday, May 13, 2024, at Hutchison Stadium. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)

Farmington Municipal Schools superintendent Cody Diehl and Farmington High School principal Rocky Torres stated in an apology letter released at 4 p.m. Friday that “the intent always, is to create a ceremony that is inclusive of all graduates and honors all of our students. It is clear that what occurred detracted from that and had the opposite effect.”

In the Farmington Municipal Schools parent handbook provided to the Tri-City Record via an Inspection of Public Records Act request, it stated under the heading of Graduation Event Participation that “the cap and gown must be worn, and their appearance may not be altered,” because “the graduation ceremony is the time to show respect toward parents and toward the ceremony.”

However, Diehl and Torres are now saying the district could learn from the experience and work toward “improving our school communities now and in the future.”

The letter apologized to the community, the student and her family “for the events at graduation involving the Native American regalia,” and further stated that staff’s actions “intended no disrespect or to violate anyone’s cultural beliefs or practices.”

Diehl and Torres said there needs to be conversations in the community as to how to “best celebrate all of our graduates.”

They promised to collaborate with groups in the Navajo Nation as well as other community stakeholders “to begin the healing process and figure out the best ways to move forward.”

Navajo Nation President Dr. Buu Nygren on Friday signed an executive order at Page High School in Arizona to allow Navajo students to wear traditional regalia at commencement ceremonies, according to a news release from the administration. (Courtesy photo)