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High school graduate’s tribal beads removed raises questions

By Faith Egbuonu

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    ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (KOAT) — KOAT spoke with White Bull’s mother, Brenda White Bull, in a full interview on Thursday, May 16. According to White Bull, 17-year-old Genesis White Bull’s cap was adorned with tribal beads and cultural significance of the Hunkpapa Lakota, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North and South Dakota. The video of White Bull’s cap removal has sparked controversy, garnering thousands of views and comments through social media platforms.

KOAT also spoke with Senators Harold Pope, Linda M. Lopez and Shannon Pinto. They’re sponsors of Senate Bill 80. The bill prohibits discrimination in schools based on hair or cultural headdresses of a student. All three agreed Farmington High is in violation of the bill. However, Pope states some are unaware of it. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law in 2021 (The interview is below).

“We are Hunkpapa Lakota from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe up in North and South Dakota. When one of our members are graduating like this milestone for Genesis, it is rightfully so that we can practice our ways and it states it in the treaties that we are allowed to practice our religion and the way we practice it,” White Bull said.

“We don’t need permission from anybody anymore to adorn our attire, our beadwork, our plumes, our feather, that medicine that was put into it, that feather that was sent, her dress that was made by the beadwork in that cap. It took two months and that was done with prayer as well. All that was in the makings within these last couple of months and brought to us finally,” White Bull said. “We adorned her with those on Sunday. We had a reception and we placed those on her through prayer and many of her friends and our relatives came to help celebrate that milestone for her.”

White Bull speaks on daughter’s cap removal

Faith Egbuonu: What went through your mind at that very moment?

Brenda White Bull: We were enjoying the moment. I happened to look down and was scanning the whole scenery, taking it all in and looked over. I found two women standing over my daughter and one was pointing her finger at her, standing over her. That immediately triggered me. That’s my daughter. She’s only 17 years old. She’s still a minor. And for them to stand over her and demand that they give her, her cap — take her cap off. My daughter stood her ground and told that person ‘no’ at first and then lady there, a non-Indigenous, said, ‘If you don’t give me your cap. you are not walking.’ So, she gave her, her cap and that lady said, ‘Take this tassel off. Put that on the cap I’m giving you right now.’ My daughter took a stance. I told her, ‘Genesis, I’m so proud of you. I told her that I’m so proud of you that you stepped forward. I said, ‘You got your diploma, you graduated, you did it. I said, not only did you graduate with your educational diploma, but you also graduated in activism, in leadership.

Faith Egbuonu: I would like to confirm this with you. When you both got her original cap back with cultural beads, is it true some beads were ruined or missing from the cap? That’s facts?

Brenda White Bull: Yes. When Genesis — after the graduation, they instructed the students to go over to the arena to go pick up their actual paperwork with the diploma and their name on it. So, she went in there, and that same lady who had her plume, who took her hat, was the one who issued back her diploma, and she [Genesis] asked that same lady, ‘Can I have my cap back now? And the lady pointed over to another lady and told her to dig in that box. And it was a lost and found box. They went through it and found my daughter’s cap at the bottom of that box.

So, it’s treated like everything else with no respect. There was no culture sensitivity in that school at all that day for my daughter. When she brought it [cap] back to me, the beads were removed. There were parts of it coming off. So, it was very disrespectful because there’s prayers in our regalia and our beadwork that we adorned her with, all of that was sent from the four directions and brought to her and sent here. It was disrespected because there was prayer in that cap.

We talk about this generational trauma. And seven generations, even before I was born, my great-grandparents thought about me. They didn’t know who we were, but they knew we were coming and they fought for our rights and they didn’t want us to go through what they went through. And so that’s Genesis. That’s when she took this and wore her plume in her beautiful skirt and her moccasins. She’s standing for the next generation.

Senators Harold Pope, Linda M. Lopez and Shannon Pinto weigh in

“Putting some of our legislation forward is the safety and the well-being of our students, especially when we talk about the field and education. So, it was very unbelievable in some sense, especially for the state. I am disappointed, strongly disappointed in what took place in removing her cap, which is clearly something that is protected by the New Mexico Crown Act that we passed,” Lopez told KOAT.

“Coming together with all of our different communities here in the state of New Mexico, making sure that we were able to honor all of our communities and of course, made sure this centered on our indigenous communities right to honor the religious significance, cultural significance of feathers, beads and whatever else that they would be using, whether in school with any school activity. And, of course, this graduation is most definitely a school activity,” Lopez said.

“We are very disappointed that it’s still an issue, especially when we I’ve seen a lot of what is happening in our higher education institutions as far as their expression in which if there’s not violence in that expression, there’s a fine line there,” Pinto told KOAT.

“This went a little bit too far. It went too far. It’s internal. It’s an internal hurt and it’s not just for me. It’s going to ripple to our other students. It can really bring a community down when something like this happens. The trauma. This is a community event. Our children go through 13 years of following policy and procedures to get to this point. This was their end goal,” Pinto said.

“I express some of the disappointment and in some ways hurt with what happened. And I think what Senator Pinto stated, you know, we came together to work on this bill not only with our indigenous communities, but looking out for folks from every community that are maybe of small numbers, but they need to be protected,” Pope said.

Faith Egbuonu: If this is in violation of Senate Bill 80, as you all stated, what’s next? How will this be handled moving forward?

Sen. Pope: I’m not going to get into specifics right now in my response, but in my view, they violated it. We passed it here in New Mexico with the work of my colleagues, before the work that they were doing, even before I was elected. It was so broad and inclusive that it’s actually not called the ‘Crown Act’ anymore because we actually included religious hairstyles and religious headdress. That was in schools, public schools, charter schools and in the workplace.

For me, what happened here did that. This was a headdress. And so, to me, this was done against the law and what we passed. I don’t want to misinform anybody or say anything, but we need to follow up on it. I will say to, that we passed it in 2021. And unfortunately, with some of the stuff that we do pass, folks don’t know what the laws are and what changes we’ve had have made in our state. But unfortunately, what has happened here has actually proved our point on why we need we need these types of protections.

Farmington Municipal Schools Statement We would like to address some of the community concerns we have received regarding the graduation ceremony on Monday night at Farmington High School. During the event, a student’s beaded cap was exchanged for a plain one. The feather was returned intact to the family during the ceremony. The beaded cap was returned after graduation concluded.

District protocol states that the cap and gown must be worn, and their appearance may not be altered, which can be found in the 2023-2024 Student and Parent Handbook. Students were informed throughout the school year and immediately before graduation of the protocol, including that beaded caps were not allowed.

This standard process helps us set student attire during graduations. However, students are welcome to wear clothes of their choice, including traditional attire, under the graduation cap and gown and regalia, stoles, and feathers in their tassels.

While the staff involved were following district guidelines, we acknowledge this could have been handled differently and better. Moving forward, we will work to refine our processes at the school level. The district is also committed to exploring the addition of a district policy that allows for additional appropriate cultural elements in student attire, including graduation caps and gowns.

We are proud of all of our graduates and deeply value their different cultural backgrounds, which enhance the educational experience for all of our students. Thank you for your understanding and support as we continue to work to honor both culture and individual expression in all our schools.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham Statement “In New Mexico, we are proud of and committed to our diversity, and what happened at the Farmington High School graduation ceremony does not reflect that commitment. It is unacceptable that a student was reprimanded for representing their culture during a time of celebration.

I appreciate that the Farmington schools acknowledge that they could have handled this situation better and that their policy may be too restrictive. However, it shouldn’t have required the student raising this issue for a school to recognize its lack of inclusivity,” -Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Based upon the passage of Senate 80 in 2021, KOAT asked the school district when its ‘Student and Parent handbook’ was put into place regarding protocols for caps and gowns specified on Pg. 28 and 29. A spokesperson for the district stated, “The handbook is updated every year, The version you are seeing is this year’s.”

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