Anchorage policy shift allows tribal regalia at graduations

West High School graduate, David Paoli displays his sealskin graduation cap in 2021. A school employee took his sealskin cap away, saying it violated the rules.  (Photo courtesy of Ayyu Qassataq)

Alaska’s largest school district has updated its policy to allow students to wear items expressive of their cultural heritage and identity during graduation.

The policy now allows students within the Anchorage School District to adorn their graduation cap or gown with “traditional objects of tribal regalia or recognized objects of cultural significance.”

The policy change came after some families found the previous policy of seeking approval to wear traditional regalia insulting, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

“It is completely inappropriate for there to be anyone in a position of authority to tell Native people when and where we can wear our cultural regalia, in particular around rites of passage,” said Ayyu Qassataq, who is Inupiaq. Her son was one of the students last year who was told they could not wear regalia at graduation.

Related: Anchorage School District to reexamine policy after students prevented from wearing cultural regalia at graduation

That situation led to apologies, a suspension of the rule and the updated policy.

Suella Wendell, who is Yup’ik, plans to wear regalia next year at her graduation ceremony at Chugiak High, including a Yup’ik headdress created by an elder from Toksook Bay and mukluks. She a member of the Native Advisory Committee, one of the groups that helped change the policy this year.

“We wanted to get the message across that everyone, including other cultures, are invited to wear their own regalia,” Wendell said.

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