NPS, tribal leaders react to Stitt veto of tribal regalia bill

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May 8—Native American leaders throughout the state are reprimanding Gov. Kevin Stitt for his veto of Senate Bill 429, which would protect Native American children who wish to alter their graduation robes to reflect their culture.

The move reflects a history of conflict between state institutions and tribal nations.

Lucyann Harjo, Indian education coordinator for Norman Public Schools, called Stitt's veto "frustrating" and "upsetting."

"There's been a lot of work that went in that process to try to advocate for Indian students across the state to be able to wear something that's of importance to them and their tribe or their tribal nation," Harjo said.

"It's really disappointing, especially when you have both the state and representatives and state senators agreeing and pushing it forward for Native kids."

Norman Public Schools allows Native American students to adapt graduation robes and caps to reflect their tribal culture. Alterations can include: beading caps, attaching eagle fathers to headgear, wearing stoles that reflect the student's tribal nation, and more.

"Our district allows our kids to bead their cap and for them to be able to wear an eagle feather or wear items of importance from their tribal nation," Harjo said. "But that's not true for everyone across the state."

She said there are about 156,000 Native American students across Oklahoma who would have been protected by the measure had Stitt signed the legislation.

In a joint statement, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole nations called on the Oklahoma Legislature to overturn different vetoes, including SB 429.

"It's unfortunate that once again we are addressing an issue with Indigenous students wearing tribal regalia to honor their academic achievement and accomplishments at graduation," David Hill, principal chief of Muscogee Nation, said in a news release. "When students choose to express the culture and heritage of their respective nations to signify this moment in their lives, it is not to demand special favor to wear whatever they please, it is to honor their identity."

In a correspondence with The Transcript, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of Cherokee Nation said Stitt missed an opportunity to build relationships with tribal nations in Oklahoma.

"With this legislation, Governor Stitt had an opportunity to support religious freedom and families honoring their kids' high school accomplishments," he said. "Instead, he's chosen more division and insults to his Native American constituents."

Hoskin clarified that Native American students already have some protection under the law to wear tribal regalia in graduation ceremonies, but this law would have made those rights clearer so school administrators would not mistakenly violate them.

"That's why the Legislature approved this bill, along with other bills supported by tribes, with nearly unanimous, bipartisan votes," he said. "I strongly urge the Legislature to override the Governor's irresponsible vetoes of this and other important legislation."

Harjo said since Stitt vetoed the bill, she has received phone calls from parents asking how it would affect the district. She has told them it would not, but encourages people to talk about the district's policies.

"I understand that there are not so great relationships between the state of Oklahoma and tribal leaders, but this is one area that is dear to our hearts, allowing our kids to practice this," Harjo said. "It's the right thing to do for our school district."

She said Stitt's veto reflects a deep history of conflict between the state and tribal nations.

"There's a bitter history between tribal nations and the state government," she said.

Native American students graduate at lower rates than students of other racial backgrounds, in part, because of the relationship they have with state governments, multiple reports show.

"It's important for our schools to teach about the history of relations between federal and state government, and tribal nations to help students understand why there are so many stereotypes of Native people, and why Indian families don't trust public schools and teachers," Harjo said. "There's a reason for that, and a lot of people don't hear about our history."

She said centuries of education policies have been directed at Native American peoples to harm culture, including forcing children to attend boarding schools, many of which are still in operation.

Because of poor living conditions, many of these older schools have cemeteries that still hold the bodies of children who could not return to their homelands.

"It's sad. We are learning how many burial sites there are just in Oklahoma. They have reported there are 70-something," Harjo said. "We found over 90 boarding schools just in Oklahoma. It's sad, finding all these pictures of Indian children separated from their families."