School Apologizes after Seizing Lakota Student’s Feathered Graduation Cap

Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gestures during a virtual news conference from the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., on July 23, 2020.

A viral video of staff confiscating a Native American student’s cap at a New Mexico high school’s graduation last week sparked an outpouring of anger as administrators apologized for failing to create a ceremony that was “inclusive of all graduates.”

Genesis White Bull, a senior at Farmington High School in Farmington, N.M., and a Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had adorned her dark green graduation cap with traditional Lakota decorations – ornate beadwork and a white feather plume.

But video posted on Facebook, previously reported by the Tri-City Record, shows two school staff members approaching White Bull shortly after the ceremony began on Monday. As the national anthem played, the staff handed White Bull a plain cap and walked away with her beaded, feathered one.

“That’s part of our traditions and culture,” Brenda White Bull, the student’s mother, said of the adornments in a video posted to Facebook on Thursday.

Brenda White Bull and her daughter could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday.

Farmington Municipal Schools wrote in a statement to families Thursday that staff returned Genesis White Bull’s cap and feather to her family after the ceremony. District protocol forbids students from altering their cap and gown, the district added.

But administrators the next day followed up with an apology.

“The intent, always, is to create a ceremony that is inclusive of all graduates and honors all of our students,” the district wrote in another statement. “It is clear that what occurred detracted from that and had the opposite effect. We are confident that our staff intended no disrespect or to violate anyone’s cultural beliefs or practices.”

The expression of remorse came amid a flurry of criticism as video of the incident spread. The council of the Navajo Nation, which borders Farmington, called the school’s actions “demeaning” and said it stood in solidarity with tribal members’ right to honor their culture by wearing traditional attire at graduations.

“Tribal communities should not be subjected to the perpetuation of generational trauma through discriminatory actions, particularly during celebratory events like graduations,” the council said in a statement Friday.

Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, the Navajo Nation’s first lady, said the beaded cap and a plume symbolize achievement for Native students and “the culmination of prayers and ceremonies done for them.”

“Our regalia reminds us of how far we’ve come as a people, it shows our pride in our culture, and how we chose to identify ourselves as Native people,” she wrote in a statement Wednesday.

“I am deeply disappointed that this happened at a school where we have many Navajo and Native graduates,” Blackwater-Nygren added. “I hope the school learns from this experience and can take corrective measures.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said it was “unacceptable that a student was reprimanded for representing their culture during a time of celebration.” The ACLU of New Mexico also issued a statement of support for White Bull.

White Bull’s family called for supporters to rally in Farmington on Saturday dressed in graduation attire and her chosen colors, turquoise and pink. Photos shared on social media show dozens of people gathered in support, waving American Indian Movement flags.