Her tribal regalia was banned at graduation. So she worked to change the law.

Nikki Cervantes
Trinidad Cervantes, a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, wasn’t allowed to wear a hand-beaded cap at her high school graduation in 2021.
Nikki Cervantes
Before her graduation ceremony last year in Cedar City, Utah, Trinidad Cervantes posed for a photo in the cap she was later told she couldn’t wear.

Trinidad Cervantes said she felt humiliated last year on her high school graduation day in Cedar City, Utah, when a teacher pulled her aside at the ceremony and told her she couldn’t wear a beaded cap with an eagle feather in honor of her Native American heritage.

Her aunt, Lou Charles, had spent hours hand-beading decorative edging around the cap in Canyon View High School’s colors of teal, silver and black, said Cervantes, who is a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.

Another aunt had called the school and said she had gotten permission to add the decorations to the cap – a traditional way for Native American students to express their spirituality and cultural pride, Cervantes said.

“But when I got up to the stage, I was told to remove it,” Cervantes said, adding that she was the only one in her class who graduated without a cap after she declined a plain one offered to her.

“Everybody was watching on live stream as I had to take it off, and when I returned to my seat, I was crying,” she added. “It ruined my graduation day.”

Principal Dennis Heaton said sacred eagle feathers were allowed on graduation tassels, but beadwork was not allowed on caps.

“There may have been a miscommunication,” Heaton told The Washington Post in an interview. “As long as I’ve been an administrator, we haven’t allowed students to put anything on their caps because things had been put on that were inappropriate.”

“The policy wasn’t about Native Americans – it was about having some control over what people could put on their caps,” Heaton said, adding that until last year it had never been an issue at the high school.

Cervantes, now 19, said she wanted to make sure that what happened to her did not happen to her younger sister, Taina Cervantes, who is currently a sophomore, when it came time for her to graduate.

She and her family contacted the Iron County School District to express their dismay, and they were told that the district did not control local graduation ceremonies, said Cervantes.

Then they relayed what had happened to the Paiute Tribe’s chairwoman, Corrina Bow.

Bow convinced two Utah state representatives to sponsor a bill this year giving Native American students the right to wear tribal regalia and other items of cultural and spiritual significance at high school commencements and other events.

Last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB30 into law, making it illegal to prevent Indigenous students from wearing cultural regalia at school ceremonies.

Utah now joins states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, Oregon, Minnesota, Washington, South Dakota and North Dakota in legalizing the practice.

“Off and on over the years, I’d heard about tribal member students who were prevented from decorating their caps in honor of their heritage,” said Bow, 61, noting that her own granddaughter also wasn’t allowed to wear regalia on her graduation cap.

“I knew it was time to really push for a change,” she said.

The high school graduation rate has long been lower for Native American students, said Bow, pointing to a 2020 study that shows Indigenous teens are two to three times more likely to drop out of school than their White peers.

“Because so many of them don’t stay in school, why penalize them when they do?” she said. “Decorating their caps and allowing them to celebrate their heritage helps to make graduation into something special for them.”

Bow reached out to Utah lawmakers Rep. Angela Romero, D, and Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D, who sponsored a bill calling for a statewide policy change.

Their bill passed unanimously, ensuring that Native American students in Utah can now wear feathers, arrowheads, beadwork and other items related to their cultural heritage at high school graduations.

“For Native communities, it’s not just about the regalia – this has a symbolic and spiritual element as well,” said Romero of Salt Lake City.

“It’s about their families and it’s about honor and respect,” she said. “No Native student should have to face barriers in honoring their culture and their spirituality.”

Bow said that decorating a cap with beadwork and eagle feathers has become more popular in recent years.

“Graduation is a big deal and decorating caps is a way to show appreciation for heritage and family,” she said, adding that Native American milestones have long been celebrated by wearing special regalia.

For Cervantes, the bill-signing she attended with her family on April 14 helped ease the disappointment she felt last year.

“I’m glad this will help another person, because I sure had a damper put on my own celebration,” she said.

Across town at Cedar City High School, Emalyce Kee was also told last year that she couldn’t wear a graduation cap that had been trimmed in gold beadwork by her uncle.

“They said I couldn’t be different from the other kids,” she said.

Kee, who is Diné (Navajo) and Rosebud Sioux, said she thought the rule was unfair, so she hid her decorative cap beneath her graduation gown and put it on at the last minute to receive her diploma.

“People were allowed to wear leis at graduation, but I wasn’t allowed a beaded cap and an eagle feather? That was offensive to me,” said Kee, 19.

“We were proud of her for standing up for herself and wearing the cap anyway,” said her mother, Valerie Glass. “She wanted to march with her classmates in honor.”

There were no repercussions after her daughter switched her cap, she said.

“She shook hands with the principal and proceeded to take her diploma, and there was nothing they could do – the whole town was watching,” said Glass.

Kee’s high school has a controversial history regarding Native American students, she said, noting that since the early 1940s, the school’s mascot had been the Redmen. When tribal members pressed for a change, the name was switched to the Reds in 2019.

Lance Hatch, superintendent of the Iron County School District, said he is glad to now have the guidance that tribal regalia is allowed.

“In the past, there was no real policy – it was just left up to each individual school,” said Hatch, adding that leis were always fine to wear.

Hatch said the district has 12,531 students, and 290 of them are Native American, including 17 seniors.

It’s a small group, but Bow said she believes the majority will be graduating later this month.

“They can certainly feel proud when they walk with their classmates this year and wear their regalia to honor where they came from,” she said.

“It’s wonderful to see that the way is now paved for our students going forward.”