Christina Running Hawk-Ellison’s son Brody walks off the stage during his high school graduation ceremony in Omaha.

Words don’t do justice to the pride I felt watching my son Brody accept his high school diploma this May. Any parent can tell you that the years go by faster than you expect them to, and before you know it, your little guy is not so little but a young man stepping off the graduation stage and into a new chapter of life.

One thing that made this ceremony particularly meaningful was how my son chose to display his cultural identity. Brody wore the eagle feather on his cap, given to him by his family, a form of tribal regalia that honors achievement of the religion and traditions of our Oglala Lakota people. He was the first student in his district to do so. Seeing him walk confidently across the stage while the feather gracefully flew in the air made my heart swell with joy. Every Native family deserves that same experience.

As a former ACLU of Nebraska board member, I was thrilled to see the organization recently partner with the Nebraska Indian Education Association on a letter proactively reminding Nebraska’s public universities and K-12 school districts that Native students have a right to wear tribal regalia at school graduation ceremonies. The appalling situation in New Mexico last month, when school staff took away a student’s eagle plume and beaded cap, shows the importance of this work.

Many Nebraska schools don’t know the significance of tribal regalia or its protected status. If history hasn’t taught us by now, we have to be two steps ahead for people to see us. The ACLU and Nebraska Indian Education Association’s outreach helps. So does the community education it brings. Some Native students and their families may not know that they have a right to recognize their heritage at graduation in a way that is meaningful for them and their families. We cannot expect others to understand what history has not been teaching.

Before graduation, I took the proactive step of taking to our school’s principal information on the current protections for tribal regalia and the recent legislative changes that will further protect students’ right to wear regalia when they take effect in July of 2025. While I knew our rights, I wanted to preempt any possible issues and ensure my son could have the same experience I did when I wore regalia for my graduation from UNL (something I couldn’t do in high school). The conversations were very positive and Brody and I were given affirmation of support. I am truly grateful.

As a parent and an educator who has taught history, I see such value in regalia as a show of victory over attempts of cultural genocide. This has always been part of my motive to lobby for bills on tribal regalia, for our Native youth to have the confidence to emerge again. For generations, Indigenous students and their families have endured persecution, such as the forced assimilation at boarding schools that tore youth from their families and sought to suppress their identities. Standing tall in regalia all those years later honors those ancestors and sends an important message. It is a display not just of pride and self-identity, but also the valor, beauty and resilience of Indigenous Nebraskans.

We are still here. And we will remain here. Our voices may not be loud, but our voices will never be muted. We will always find a way to celebrate our culture and continue to preserve our heritage.