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Bismarck Public Schools graduating Native American students wore feathers attached to their individual mortarboards at Bismarck and Century graduation ceremonies in 2015. Front from left are Xander Dalton, Brianna Tortalita and Jolee Littlebird. Back from left are Chelsea Schmidt, Yasmeen Silk, Diamonique Jacobson and Alicia Swagger.

In 2015, Chelsea Schmitt and six other students successfully petitioned officials at Bismarck Public Schools to allow students to wear eagle feathers at their high school graduation ceremonies.

The eagle feather — a symbol of strength and honor, and "not just a decoration" — is gifted to Native Americans when they reach a milestone in their lives, such as a graduation, Schmitt told a room full of lawmakers on Monday.

"Like my Native American family members have in the past, I got to wear a piece of my culture, a piece of who I am, on a very important day in my life," Schmitt said.

Schmitt

Chelsea Schmitt, a graduate of Bismarck High School, spoke in favor of House Bill 1335, which would allow Native American students to wear regalia at school-sanctioned events, such as graduation.

On Monday, the House Education Committee held a hearing for a bill that would allow students to wear "traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance" at public events, such as a graduation. The bill — House Bill 1335 — would prohibit school districts from creating policies that bar students from wearing these items.

Bismarck Public Schools is one of a number of schools in the state to allow students to wear eagle feathers at their graduation. Mandan Public Schools also allows students to wear feathers and has for the past five to six years, according to Superintendent Mike Bitz.

Still, there are some school districts who do not allow students to wear feathers, according to state officials.

Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, said she pushed for the bill after researching two other states, Kansas and South Dakota, that have passed similar legislation.

"Our young people thrive while being able to embrace their Native American heritage," Buffalo said, pointing to the state's high rates of suicide and low graduation rates among Native American youth. The bill will help contribute to student success, she said.

Scott Davis, North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission's executive director,  called the bill "long overdue." Every spring, right before the graduation ceremonies, Davis said he gets numerous calls from families whose children can't wear an eagle feather to graduation.

The eagle feather is important in Native American cultures, reserved for special occasions, Davis said. Several years ago, Davis said he brought in a Native American elder to educate BPS superintendents and principals of the feather's importance.

Rep. Pat Heinert, R-Bismarck, said he was shocked to learn some North Dakota school districts don't allow students to wear a feather at graduation.

"I can't believe we have to pass a state law that tells school boards that they have to allow our Native American population in North Dakota to be able to wear these at school functions," Heinert said.

There have been similar situations in other states, including California in 2015, when a student wasn't allowed to wear an eagle feather on his graduation cap.

Brianna Tortalita, a student who also helped lead the effort to repeal the policy in Bismarck, told lawmakers that she was mocked and called names in school, including one time when a student cut her hair, and when she said a complaint was filed against her for wearing a beaded medallion.

This bill would help non-Native students better understand Native culture, she said, adding that she would like the bill to extend beyond just an eagle feather, but other items of cultural significance.

State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler also testified in support of the bill, which she said was a recommendation from the North Dakota Indian Education Advisory Council.

Alexis Baxley, director of the North Dakota School Board Association, said her organization supports the bill if it would specify the type of regalia as an eagle feather. Another proposed amendment was to specify at graduation.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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