Utah allows tribal regalia for graduations. Students from other cultures want to be included
Ilaisa Folau is about to graduate from Brighton High School. During her time in school, Folau feels like she’s had to cover up her Tongan culture just to fit in.
“So for graduation, it kind of feels like I don't want to have to hide that anymore,” she said. “I want to be able to show that I successfully went through high school and schooling as a Tongan. By wearing my cultural wear, it represents that and represents the hard work that I've put in and that my family has put in.”
Folau wants to represent her heritage in the same way, by wearing a mat tied around her waist called a ta’ovala and a flower lei around her neck. So, she and a handful of other Pacific Islander students recently made the case to the Canyons Board of Education.
“These are things that aren't just articles of clothing,” Folau told the board. “They are traditions and stories. I humbly ask that, as it's my last year — my only time to walk down and accept a diploma — that I am allowed to represent my family with pride and my culture with pride.”
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is proposing legislation to include items that are significant to all cultural backgrounds. Even so, he still wants the bill to be narrowly tailored.
“We want to be careful that the graduation stage doesn't become a political parade,” he said. “I'm not wanting to open it up to that degree. But to the extent that there are culturally significant items — this is the biggest event for these young people in their lives to date. I think that we should respect that and allow them to enjoy it the way that they feel appropriate.”
One point that possibly differentiates the new law from what Eliason is proposing is that in the new law, students qualify based on their legal status relative to their tribe — not their cultural heritage.
“Someone of Native American descent, who is not eligible for enrollment, may not be a qualifying student,” said Dustin Jansen, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. “[The law] has to do with citizenship in a sovereign tribal nation that is recognized by a state or federal government. The student’s race is not a factor in this situation.”
According to a district spokesperson, the Canyons Board of Education is still updating its student attire policy to comply with the new law. They said the Board “appreciates the input provided by students to expand the policy to include other cultures,” and members expressed they would consider those concerns.
Their next meeting is May 17, and graduation is May 25.