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Graduate not allowed native regalia despite new Montana law

In this June 2, 2017, photo Zephrey Holloway's decorated mortarboard is displayed at Flathead High School's graduation in Kalispell, Mont. An administrator at the school prevented Holloway from wearing the mortarboard, painted by his grandmother, despite a new state law that allows Native American students to wear such regalia at special occasions. Principal Peter Fusaro issued an apology Monday, June 5, 2017, saying a school policy that disallowed graduates from using "tape, glitter, leis, bouquets or any other adornments" on caps and gowns was applied incorrectly. (Greg Lindstrom/Flathead Beacon via AP)

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — Administrators at a northwestern Montana high school have apologized after a graduate was prevented from wearing a mortarboard decorated with Native American regalia just 42 days after the governor signed a law allowing students to do just that.

Flathead High School Principal Peter Fusaro released a statement Monday apologizing to Zephrey Holloway and his family, including his grandmother, who painted a headdress on the cap for Holloway’s June 2 commencement ceremony.

School district policy prohibits the use of “tape, glitter, leis, bouquets or any other type of adornments” on caps and gowns, Fusaro wrote. Flathead High has allowed students to wear tribal regalia and objects of cultural significance in the past, but decorations were not allowed on caps.

In Holloway’s case, Fusaro wrote, the school policy was applied in error.

Muriel Winnier says her son even showed the administrator the language of the new law, which was signed by Gov. Steve Bullock on April 21.

“It kind of hurts not being able to display that cultural pride,” Holloway said Monday. But since it was close to the start of the ceremony and he did not have another adult to advocate for him, he said he did not want to push the point in fear of not being able to participate. He wore a plain mortarboard instead of the one painted by his grandmother, Blackfeet artist Valentina LaPier.

Holloway did wear an eagle feather that had been passed down from his great-grandfather.

Winnier posted a note about the graduation ceremony on Facebook, prompting calls to the school, including one from Democratic Sen. Jen Gross of Billings, who sponsored the recent legislation.

“It was the intent that this legislation should guide school policies, and I think something that we missed, unfortunately in time for (graduation) this year, was putting process in place to inform schools, notify them of the new law and perhaps issue guidance,” Gross said.

Holloway said he hopes the incident spurs a broader conversation about respecting other cultures.

“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.”

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