YAKIMA, Wash. -- Nami Owens wanted to embrace her Native American heritage when she walked across the stage at last Thursday’s Eisenhower High School graduation ceremony.
While other Native American students adorned their tassels with items such as feathers, Owens, 17, decided to adorn the brim and front of her mortarboard with colored beads.
But just minutes before the evening ceremony, a school administrator told her she couldn’t wear the cap because it violated the dress code. Owens said the news upset her, especially given the compliments she had received and the fact no one had told her — or other students — what could or couldn’t be on their caps. The feathers on tassels were permitted.
“My initial reaction was being upset; I started to cry,” she said.
The two sides reached an agreement: Owens could carry her cap on stage, but not wear it. She received another mortarboard to wear on her head.
Owens said she proudly waved the beaded cap once she got up to collect her diploma, but she said the incident soured the important night for her.
“I feel very strongly about this,” said Owens, who is half Yakama and half Mexican. “I feel they should make changes. I feel like if it’s your heritage you should be able to represent it.”
“They really kept calling it a decoration,” Owens said. “That was really bothering me, it’s done out of symbolizing and an honor.”
Eisenhower Principal Jewel Brumley defended the school’s decision. While students may not have known all the intricacies of the dress code, caps and gowns could not be decorated, she said.
Brumley said the dress code for graduation was addressed during senior meetings, noting that if it hadn’t, other seniors would have decorated their own caps. She said Eisenhower will have a Facebook page next school year, and will use that along with an in-school announcement to inform students about dress-code issues.
Brumley said she could relate with Owens, as she also is of Native American descent. But she said the cap violated dress rules.
“I totally understand the culture and views,” said Brumley, who is half Tsimshian. “I can do bead works, I’m an elder in my tribe. Different tribe, but same values.”
“When she mentioned that, I said you should know more about how I feel,” Owens said. “She just said it was part of her principal duty.”
Owens shared her story on her Facebook and Twitter accounts. She also shared a story of a similar graduation attire incident in Oklahoma. She said reaction to her story was overwhelmingly positive. On Twitter, she even heard from another student elsewhere that she would honor her story and others by adorning her mortarboard.