Updated: June 5, 5:30 p.m.
Flathead High School administrators have apologized after a student was prevented from wearing a graduation cap decorated with Native American regalia at the June 2 commencement ceremony.
Muriel Winnier said her son Zephrey Holloway was pulled aside by a member of the school’s administration before the ceremony and told he would have to wear a blank cap.
The cap Holloway brought for graduation was intricately painted by his grandmother, traditional Blackfeet artist Valentina LaPier, in what Winnier said was a family tradition.
Flathead High School Principal Peter Fusaro released a statement on June 5 apologizing for the incident, saying the application of the rule against decorating caps was “in error.” There is a districtwide policy against “tape, glitter, leis, bouquets, or any other adornments” on caps and gowns, but in the past, Flathead High School “has allowed students to wear tribal regalia and objects of cultural significance to express their indigenous heritage during commencement exercises,” the statement reads.
“The application of this provision in this situation was in error. The School District and administration of Flathead High School regret the misapplication of this policy and has extended apologies to the student, their family, and their grandmother, who painted the cap,” the statement reads.
According to Winnier, the family received notice several weeks before graduation about the school’s policy regarding cap decorations. The high school’s website gave information about the 2017 graduation, including that the school doesn’t allow “tape, glitter, leis, bouquets, or any other adornments” on the caps. But after the state Legislature earlier this year passed Senate Bill 319, which allows individuals to wear traditional regalia and objects of cultural significance during graduation, Winnier thought her son was in the clear.
There wasn’t enough time to bead the hat, as is typically the tradition, Winnier said, so her mother spent 12 hours painting it. The idea was to make it a family heirloom that her son can keep and cherish, she said. Along with the painting, Holloway also carried a veteran feather from the Korean War, passed down from Winnier’s grandfather to her mother, and now to Holloway for graduation.
Winnier said her son showed the Senate Bill 319 language to the administration, but he didn’t want to cause a scene and said he’d wear a plain cap while someone else held the painted cap.
“He went ahead and handed over his cap and he said, ‘I’m not going to give you my feather,'” Winnier said. “During the ceremony, I couldn’t see the back of him until he sat down. It crushed my heart. I was upset.”
Winnier said she wrote a brief message on Facebook about the incident and didn’t think about social media again until her family left town, when she went back online and realized her son’s graduation story had gone viral.
“We definitely didn’t come out trying to be activists and make a point,” Winnier said. “We were just trying to do a family tradition for graduation.”
Winnier said her son has been in contact with some of the people who helped make Senate Bill 319 a reality, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union. She’s leaving it up to her son on how they’ll move forward.
“The (cap and feather) are something he’ll have for the rest of his life,” Winnier said. “These weren’t small things. These were significant things in our lives.”
Full statement from FHS Principal Peter Fusaro:
Flathead High School has allowed students to wear tribal regalia and objects of cultural significance to express their indigenous heritage during commencement exercises. As part of our 2017 graduation ceremony, a student was allowed to display an eagle feather as part of his graduation attire. The same student was not permitted to wear a cap that included culturally significant artwork expressing their indigenous heritage. This decision was based on a graduation provision that does not permit students to use “tape, glitter, leis, bouquets, or any other adornments” on their caps and gowns. The application of this provision in this situation was in error. The School District and administration of Flathead High School regret the misapplication of this policy and has extended apologies to the student, their family, and their grandmother, who painted the cap. Although school administrators were generally aware of SB 319 prior to commencement exercises, the School District has taken steps to ensure that Montana law authorizing expressions of indigenous heritage is honored fully in the future.
My sincerest apologies,
Peter J Fusaro