On April 21st a bill was passed in Montana which allows Native American students to wear traditional regalia at their graduations. Signed by Governor Steve Bullock, the Native American regalia bill means that schools and government agencies are not able to interfere if students choose to wear items of cultural significance with their robes and mortar boards upon graduation.
Native American graduation rates have historically been notoriously low — the school drop-out rate for Native American students is a massive 70% — and the minority group is still one of the most marginalised in American society. Indeed, 97% of the Native American population reportedly live below the poverty line, the community suffer from a fluctuating unemployment rate of up to 85%, and indigenous groups are still campaigning to receive equal voter rights in the US, after reporting that officials have institutionalised practices which prevent some tribes from voting in American elections — for instance, refusing to translate ballots into native languages. Therefore, a bill which allows for the celebration of Native American heritage and achievements is a huge leap forward for the communities which have been suffering under increased Westernisation since colonisation.
Native Americans have suffered from a history of attempted erasure from ‘civilised’ Western culture. Upon British colonisation of the United States, efforts were made to physically remove indigenous tribes from the land, followed by more psychological erasure attempts. Richard Henry Pratt was known for his creation of the idea of Native American boarding schools — founding the most famous, the Carlisle Indian School. These institutions removed children from their tribes and took them to Western schools to learn how to ‘fit in’ with American society. Boys and girls were separated, had their regalia removed, and were placed in ‘appropriate’, gender-specific clothing — boys had their hair cut short, and girls were placed in classes teaching them cleaning, needlework and motherhood, enforcing traditional Western gender ideals upon a group which customarily placed little import on gender; in typical Native American communities women were given equal respect and duties, and it wasn’t until after these boarding schools had been in use that gender imbalances — and larger issues, such as rape — became commonplace among tribes.
Disney’s Pocahontas romanticises the struggles of Native American women, and ‘sexy Indian’ Halloween costumes sexualise and fetishize them, taking away their cultural worth and significance in the history of the American land and placing them in a position wherein their worth in their country depends on their bodies and their aesthetic, commercial value.
Despite the enormous injustices faced by the Native American community, there has been little by way of de facto progress even today. There was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada which addressed the atrocities that indigenous people suffered after colonisation — essentially a nationwide public apology which directly announces, addresses and apologises for all injustices and is seen by many as a form of closure, allowing for the country to move forward and to finally allow a chance for social equality. However, in the US there has been no such commission. The closest America has come was the Maine Wabankaki-State Truth and Reconciliation Commission; whilst this does address issues faced by Native Americans, it is specific to the Wabankaki experiences with child welfare, and doesn’t address larger issues of violence (both physical and psychological), discrimination and marginalisation, or erasure. This commission concluded that there was still an institutionalised racism towards Native Americans, and acknowledged a ‘cultural genocide’, but still there has been no real action to address this glaring social issue.
Therefore, the recently-passed bill in Montana is seen by many as the first step towards at last achieving equity and harmony for the Native American tribes and peoples across the United States. Despite the huge physical assaults, it is the psychological damage which has been most scarring for the community, having lived with the fear of losing their heritage entirely and being forced into Westernised, Americanised ways of living. Thus, making it possible for graduating Native American students to celebrate their culture publically is a huge leap into de-marginalisation and prosperity — something which is so significant in an America which still suffers from such fluctuating synchronisation with minority groups.