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GUEST OPINION. Another year of high school and college graduations brings another round of school administrators obstructing Native American students from Indigenizing their graduation caps during commencement ceremonies around the United States. 

Most recently, we saw school officials at Farmington High School walk up to graduate Genesis White Bull — a student of Hunkpapa Lakota citizenship who decorated her cap with beads and a sacred eagle feather — and forcefully remove the feather. Officials then made White Bull swap her decorated cap for a plain, undecorated cap.  

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The young graduate’s face showed hurt, embarrassment, and anger, but she showed great poise, class, and strength despite the audacity of the school officials.  

We see far too often school leaders feeling unnerved or bothered by Indigenous students showing pride in their heritage with seemingly harmless decorations on their caps. 

It reminds me of my own high school graduation 32 years ago. My situation wasn’t totally the same; there was no beading or feathers on my cap. There was, however, a slight against my Native American heritage on commencement night.

I was a mixed-blood Native kid. My father was Indigenous and my mother of predominantly  Irish ancestry. My parents divorced when I was young and my mother raised me and my younger brother in her childhood home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. My father sporadically appeared in our lives. But that’s a different story for a  different time.

In my younger childhood, I often tried to avoid conversations about middle names, significantly growing up in Catholic schools where most of my classmates had middle names like William, Christopher, and John. My middle name was Lightfoot. 

I had only intermittent access to my tribe’s cultural events, coinciding with my occasional contact with my father. My father, to his credit, always made sure my brother and I attended my tribe’s powwow, and we did see certain cousins, aunts, uncles and our beloved grandmother.

I had very little understanding of the significance of my unique middle name. I  was definitely living in two worlds. The fear of being taunted by my friends and classmates, all of them white, because my middle name was ‘different’ had me shying away from the topic.

I became more curious about my Indigenous roots during my high school years. To my surprise, my father engaged in conversations about family and heritage. It felt like we were finally bonding.

On my Irish-Catholic mother’s side of the family, I was sort of a ‘legacy’ student. My maternal grandfather, maternal uncle, and other relatives were all alumni of my high school, Saint Raphael Academy. I have always wanted to go to high school there, and I had been in love with purple and gold school colors since elementary school. Graduating from ‘Saint Ray’s’ was a dream for me. 

I began signing everything with my full name — my middle name included. I began embracing and including my ancestral pride in more of my daily life. During my senior year of high school, I even wore a necklace made of buckskin with the tip of a deer antler at the end of school. It was a gift from my father. 

I was flaunting my ethnicity at a Catholic high school while following the school dress code. The school principal, the late Brother William Kemmerer, encouraged me, often complimenting my necklace.

Despite all the encouragement I felt embracing my Indigenous heritage, the eventual graduation issue began early in my senior year. We were given paperwork at the start of the school year, which asked us to sign how we wanted our names to  appear on our diplomas and over our photos in the yearbook. I excitedly signed up to have my full, birth given name of Brian Lightfoot Brown on my diploma and my yearbook photo.  

Graduation was still about eight months away, so I filled out the paperwork, handed it in, and didn’t give it another thought.

Fast-forward to graduation day: June 2, 1992. That morning at rehearsal, the first sign of trouble arose. As I walked to the stage during graduation rehearsal, the officiant read my name as  “Brian L. Brown.” After rehearsal, I asked them to make sure my full middle name was read during commencement. I was told that “Brian L. Brown” was what they had on the list but that it would probably have my full middle name on the actual commencement list for the ceremony.

I went to my graduation ceremony, worried that this seemingly harmless mistake would carry over to the evening’s event. All of the graduates and their loved ones were in attendance. My parents, two of my siblings, an aunt, an uncle, among others, were there for me. My aunt Faith — my dad’s sisterwas aware of my concern, as I  had mentioned it to her before we arrived at the venue.

When it came time for me to walk across the stage and accept my diploma, my heart sank when they read my name out again as “Brian L.  Brown.” As my name was called out with only my middle initial, my aunt Faith yelled out, “LIGHTFOOT.” I am sure this was a small, perhaps even unnoticed, gesture to others in attendance, but it was just the pick-me-up I needed at that moment. 

My disappointment returned when I looked at my diploma and saw “Brian L. Brown.” I felt disrespected, insulted, insignificant, invisible and ignored. I  decided to keep all of that to myself for the time being. I felt in my heart that this slight was not an honest mistake, but that a Catholic school, for whatever reason, didn’t want a non-Catholic, non-Christian middle name to appear on one of the diplomas from their institution. Did they think it was just a nickname? I will never know, but it’s a feeling of rejection I will carry until my last breath despite still being a proud alumni.

A few months after graduation, we were invited back to get our long-awaited yearbooks. I was excited to receive this ultimate commemoration of my senior year. My heart sank, once again, as I got to my yearbook photo only to see ‘Brian L.  Brown’ above my picture. I decided to bite my tongue yet again. 

The exclusion of my middle name from my diploma was a letdown. But to see it happen in my yearbook, as well, was adding insult to injury. I often mentioned these disappointments over the years, conceding that nothing could be done anyway

My mother, as she has always done, came through for me when she was employed at the  Pawtucket School Department and had a reprinted version of my diploma made with my full name, “Brian Lightfoot Brown,” on it. This was about 15 years after I had graduated and while I wished Saint Raphael Academy had been the one to correct their mistake, I was ever grateful to my forever supportive Mom for looking out for me again. 

I think of my experience every year when I hear about Native American graduates being denied the right to decorate their caps for commencement. It’s clearly an issue that high schools and colleges must address and correct.

After all of this, I still want Indigenous graduates to enjoy their moment, stay proud of who they are and what they are, and remember that their successes and accomplishments aren’t going unnoticed. Perhaps a day will come when Indigenizing graduation caps won’t be met with petty resistance.

Brian Lightfoot Brown studied U.S. History at the University of Rhode Island, is an enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island and a grand nephew of 2-time  Boston Marathon winner and 1936 U.S. Olympian Ellison “Tarzan” Brown.

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