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The choice behind the cap: Students share their stories

Graduates still restricted in showing cultural and familial honor during time of accomplishment
At San Juan College, the decoration and altering of cap and gowns has been an unofficial tradition for more than 10 years, said Registrar Karen Doughty. Students were emailed and mailed letters outlining the graduation requirements and told to do so in good taste. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)

As graduation season commenced across San Juan County, some students began to decorate or include personal touches of their identity on their mortarboards.

Of the four school districts and one higher education institution, a handful of schools permitted students to alter their graduation caps.

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San Juan College, Navajo Preparatory High School, Central Consolidated Schools and two schools from the Farmington Municipal Schools District allowed graduates to express their identity through their caps.

At graduation ceremonies, spectators could see individualized caps that included beadwork, family photos, inspiring quotes and personal interests.

For some graduates, the choice to decorate came with no restriction from administrators. For others, it was a different story.

What’s the policy?

At San Juan College in Farmington, the decision to decorate is an unofficial tradition for more than 10 years, said Registrar Karen Doughty.

“Each year, the tradition continues to grow, and SJC holds a cap-decorating contest that can be entered on social media with a photo of an actual decorated cap or by decorating a virtual cap,” she said.

Letters were mailed and emailed to students with requirements of wearing a cap and gown at the commencement including that if they chose to alter their caps it needed to be in good taste, according to Doughty.

Within Farmington Municipal schools, the ceremonies at San Juan College High School and Rocinante High School appeared to allow graduates with altered mortarboards despite district protocol that restricted students from altering their appearance.

Piedra Vista and Farmington High ceremonies did not appear to permit graduates to alter their caps.

After a Lakota graduate’s beaded mortarboard was confiscated, the district issued an apology while also reinforcing the district protocol.

“The intent, always, is to create a ceremony that is inclusive of all graduates and honors all of our students,” the district said in a news release. “It is clear that what occurred detracted from that and had the opposite effect.”

Navajo Preparatory High School graduates walk onto the football field on May 18 dressed in their cap and gown. Caps displayed traditional beadwork and decoration relating to their interests. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)

Navajo Preparatory High School graduates had the most diverse set of mortarboards walking to “Pomp and Circumstance” on May 18. Among the graduates, not only was there beadwork and traditional regalia, but also caps with personal touches from decoration to quotes.

The students at Navajo Prep want to celebrate, and that may come in the form of honoring identity and family through the mortarboard, said Head of School Shawna Becenti.

“I really feel it's all real symbolic and personal to them, and it's not really my place to say what's most important to you,” she said. “That becomes a personal connection between you and the way you're presenting yourself in a very ceremonial event.”

At Central Consolidated schools, graduates are allowed to have beading on their caps and express their cultural identity, said school board President Suzette Haskie.

“I think it's a time for celebration for the student and a time for them to express pride in their heritage,” she said.

The policy has always allowed for this expression, but it was this year the school board saw more questions in regard to this policy, according to Haskie.

In a school board meeting on May 21, two days before the first CCSD graduation, Superintendent Steve Carlson reinforced the district’s stance.

“There won’t be suppression of anything cultural in graduation ceremonies, and there was never the intention of doing that,” he said.

Kirtland Central High School graduates walk together at the graduation ceremony on May 23 at Bill Cawood Stadium. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)
‘A different level of significance’

Within Native communities, the beadwork and feather on a mortarboard hold importance that exceeds its beauty.

“I think it carries a heavier weight for families because for a lot of families, this individual who's graduating might be the first graduate,” said Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, first lady of the Navajo Nation.

Families are excited and proud to celebrate an achievement that she described as rare.

“We know our Native students struggle academically on and off reservation,” she said. “So this is not to say, you know, our students are having a really difficult time, but it’s a time to celebrate for families.”

According to the most recent tribal education status report by the New Mexico Public Education Department, Native American students have the lowest four-year graduation rate when compared with other ethnic groups.

There was some growth from the cohort group of 2019, but overall, students who identify as Native Americans graduate at less than half the rate of Hispanics and African Americans.

“American Indian students continue to fall behind in attendance compared to other subgroups,” the report said.

Samantha Begaye, San Juan College graduate, holds her mortarboard, which has a photo of her grandmother, Daisy, who died two years ago. The lettering reads, ‘I know you would be here if Heaven wasn’t far.’ Begaye said her grandmother was a big influence in her family on education. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)
Stories of honor and culture

Samantha Begaye, graduated May 11 with her commercial driver’s license from San Juan College. Family from Arizona attended to celebrate her accomplishment.

Begaye chose to decorate her graduation cap to honor her grandmother Daisy, who died two years ago.

The cap sparkled with colors of purple and white while including her grandmother’s favorite flower. On the cap, a picture of Daisy sat next to the words ‘‘I know you would be here if Heaven wasn’t far.”

Daisy was an advocate for education in her family and encouraged them on their academic endeavors, Begaye said.

“She would take us to school every day because I live in Arizona, so we would have to cross the state line to get to school,” she said “Every day she would take us to the bus stop and she would pick us up about 20 minutes from home every day, Monday through Friday.”

Begaye said she knew she wanted to decorate her cap to honor her grandmother, who was at every family graduation, and decorated the night before.

Kevika Begay, a first in her family to graduate, got her degree in business administration from San Juan College. She said her mother, Calandra Begay, beaded her cap in less than a week.

The graduate said she chose the colors and included butterflies because those who know her refer to her as a butterfly.

Beading was a skill she learned on her own, but the family does have a background in jewelry and pottery, according to the graduate’s mother, Calandra Begay.

“It really shows who you are,” the graduate said. “I saw other people's caps, and they really represented what they like and who they are.”

The beaded cap will be an item she will keep forever, she said.

Terri Etcitty, Shiprock High School graduate, wore a beaded cap with a feather attached. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)

Terri Etsitty, a Shiprock High School graduate, wore a mortarboard that was beaded by her mother’s friend, who had a baby while making it.

The cap was given to the friend and completed in three weeks, according to the graduate’s mother.

“Pink was a really, really big choice,” Etsitty said.

The color signified her experience with depression and the liberation of that toward her happiness, the graduate’s mother said.

“We go through Native American church, so it's very important for us to show our culture and show people what we believe in,” she said. “Hopefully she'll carry that forth and don't lose it, don't lose the culture, don't lose a tradition.”