Media Contact

Sam Petto, ACLU of Nebraska Communications Director

May 2, 2024

LINCOLN, Neb. – With May bringing graduation season, two Nebraska organizations are working together to make sure that school officials know that Indigenous students have a right to wear tribal regalia at school graduation ceremonies.

Today, the Nebraska Indian Education Association (NeIEA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska sent letters to Nebraska public school districts’ superintendents as well as college and university leaders, explaining how the U.S. Constitution and Nebraska Constitution protect students’ right to wear tribal regalia and how recent changes to state law will reinforce those protections. In the last two years, Nebraska state senators have passed two bills containing protections for Indigenous students who choose to wear tribal regalia.

The letter notes that rites of passage and the honoring of achievements are especially meaningful for Indigenous people, and that tribal regalia, such as eagle feathers or beaded mortar boards, play an important role for Indigenous youth that many teachers and school administrators may not understand.

NeIEA Executive Director Marian Holstein made this statement on the letter: 

“Of the approximate 4,300 K-12th grade American Indian/Alaska Native Nebraska students, about 40% attend public schools on tribal lands. The remaining students may now be attending schools that refuse to allow Indigenous students to maintain their tribal culture and customs because they are unaware of students’ rights. We hope this letter helps with awareness.

“The work of Native educators over the decades is having its impact. Not only have many states and Native Nations made growing their own Native teachers a realization, but they also affirm the research that Indigenous students achieve when their culture is respected and incorporated into the curriculum.

“It has been NeIEA’s work in Nebraska to dispel historical and intentional misconceptions of the Indigenous peoples of these lands and to recognize their many contributions to today’s society.

“As Nebraska’s educational systems face overwhelming challenges to meet current and future needs of our students, and as the population becomes more diverse, it benefits all to work together.”

ACLU of Nebraska Legal and Policy Counsel Joy Kathurima made this statement on the letter:

“Graduation is a time to celebrate and honor all students, and the last thing we want to see is a cultural misunderstanding ruining that special moment for an Indigenous student and their family,” Kathurima said. “Whether we are talking about eagle feathers, ribbon skirts, beading or another form of tribal regalia, the law is absolutely clear, Indigenous students have a right to recognize their culture and heritage in a way that is meaningful for them and their families.”

The NeIEA and ACLU of Nebraska last partnered in 2023 for the publication of a report on school dress codes and grooming policies that they co-authored with I Be Black Girl, #FreeTheHair and the University of Nebraska College of Law Muslim Law Students’ Association. The report helped build support for a change to state law that protects public school students’ right to wear tribal regalia, natural hair, protective hairstyles or religious and cultural headdresses.