Out of Line

TAHLEQUAH, Okla.—After waiting for this moment her entire life, Bhie-Cie Ledesma was ready. The 27-year-old Shoshone student and mother of two was preparing to cross the stage for graduation from Northeastern State University. She was finally graduating with a bachelor’s in health care administration.

She even had a special mortarboard. Her stepmother beaded it, and her mother attached an eagle feather at the top of it. An elder had given Ledesma the feather before she left her home state of Nevada for Oklahoma. The beadwork included NSU colors and a special design with red in the center, signifying that one of her family members was a veteran.

Then other students in line told her she couldn’t “wear that stuff” because school officials were making students remove feathers from their graduation caps and mortarboards.

Ledesma made it onstage with her feather and beadwork still on her cap but not before a confrontation with a university official.

“He told me I wasn’t allowed to wear my stuff,” Ledesma said. “There really was no way that I was taking it off. I think the only reason that I came out more fortunate than some of my fellow Natives who were stripped was the fact that I was tardy.”

That was the scene last May at NSU’s graduation when several students were told to remove feathers and other items or they wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the ceremonies. NSU has since revised its guidelines on graduation attire, in time for the fall commencement on Dec. 15.

Dr. Dalton Bigbee, the NSU vice president for academic affairs, said in a Dec. 5 statement: “Northeastern State University respects the desire of our Native American students to honor tribal traditions and customs that hold particular significance during solemn occasions. We want to allow students, if they wish, to wear items such as feathers, beads, medallions, stoles, or other relevant tribal insignia during NSU commencement ceremonies. Those who would like to have their requests considered should contact Dr. Phyllis Fife, director of the NSU Center for Tribal Studies.”

However, the university’s official graduation instructions, posted on the NSU Web site, shows no change in policy.

“It was an unfortunate incident, but we’ve been given assurance that that won’t happen again,” Fife said, referring to last May’s graduation. “It shouldn’t have happened.”

Ledesma said she was offended, particularly because of NSU’s historical links to the Cherokee tribe. The school was founded in 1851 as the Cherokee National Female Seminary. More than 2,700 Natives, 29 percent of the student body, attend NSU.

“I am ashamed of my school because they dishonored us the way they did,” said Ledesma, whose first name, Bhie-Cie, means “hummingbird” in Shoshone. “Some of us come from reservations and depressed Indian communities to places like NSU to make a difference for our people.”

Ledesma said she crammed 12 family members into her small apartment the night before so they could watch her graduate.

Warren Hawk, a Lakota from South Dakota, graduated in May with his master’s from NSU. As he stood in the procession line, he said, an NSU official told him to remove an eagle feather and medicine wheel he was wearing around his neck.

Hawk protested that the symbols were his way of honoring his tradition as a Native American.

But the university official told Hawk that if he and other Native students were allowed to wear such items, the school would have to let “other clubs, fraternities and sororities” wear their colors or items to set them apart from the crowd, Hawk said.

Hawk said another university official, escorted by a police officer, warned him to remove the feather before they escorted him out of the line. Hawk removed his feather but said he put it back on his graduation cap just before he walked across the stage.

Hawk has been one of the strongest advocates for change since the May incidents. He said he’s confident they won’t happen again.

“According to the e-mails I received from administration and with conversations I’ve had with Dr. Bigbee, I’ve been assured that with the assistance of the Center for Tribal Studies that what I experienced will never happen to another Native student again,” Hawk said. “I wish it never happened at all, but I’m glad for the results and hope the problem was resolved for future students.”

Hawk received apologies from Bigbee and other university officials but said he wasn’t looking for apologies.

“The stand that I took was not just because someone said I could not do something,” he said. “I took a stand because I felt that burden of responsibility. I felt I needed to make sure that NSU continues to honor its heritage by honoring the Native students that choose to attend this university.”

Reznet freelancer Christina Good Voice, Muscogee (Creek), is a reporter at the Cherokee Phoenix tribal newspaper in Tahlequah, Okla.

 

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