Comanche Nation leadership is taking a stand against Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of a state Senate bill protecting the rights of Native American students to display their Native American heritage during graduation ceremonies.
On Saturday, the Comanche Business Committee (CBC) offered a resolution to override Stitt’s May 1 veto of Senate Bill 429, which would have protected the right for students to don their regalia for official ceremonies.
The bill, co-authored by Sen. John Montgomery and Rep. Trey Caldwell, both of Lawton, would bar public school districts from denying Native American students the right to display regalia, such as an eagle feather attached to the mortarboard, on their graduation attire.
The CBC resolution calls for the Oklahoma Senate to immediately override the governor’s veto in order to protect the religious and cultural rights of Native children.
“The CBC is adamant that we honor our students to wear traditional regalia during graduations,” said CBC Vice-Chair Cornell Pewewardy.
Citing the Comanche Nation’s status as a sovereign nation, the resolution recognizes that Native American students carry “an immense amount of pride and respect” to honor their heritage and communities while officially recognized for their academic achievements.
Pewewardy recalled his graduation from Northeastern State University in 1976 when he was confronted by an official and ordered to remove his eagle feather from his mortarboard. He did, but as he approached the platform to receive his diploma, he pulled it out and placed it back as he walked toward the line of university officials to receive his diploma.
“After receiving my diploma, I waved in air the diploma so mom and dad could see what I did, then I tucked it back inside my gown walking down the platform,” he said. “I could hear them cheering for me in the NSU football stadium. Mom’s lulu was unique.”
Pewewardy argues there is nothing transgressive in recognizing one’s heritage in this moment meant for celebration of achievement.
With the veto, the resolution argues, Stitt has failed to uphold his duty to the more than 156,000 Native students in Oklahoma public schools by preventing schools from banning students from wearing their regalia, such as beaded caps and eagle feathers.
The resolution called the veto “a clear message to our Native students that state leadership does not respect the political relationship between the 39 Tribal Nations and the state of Oklahoma” and is a violation of protections under the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In an accompanying letter directed to Stitt, Comanche Nation Chairman Mark Woomavovah asked that he reconsider the veto as it is hoped the Comanche Nation and Oklahoma communities will continue their relationship with “honor and respect.”
“Signing SB 429 into law protects students’ right, honors their traditions, and costs nothing to the state,” he wrote. “Vetoing this bill runs counter to our shared commitment to protecting and preserving individual freedoms, and damages the respectful working relationship between Oklahoma and the Comanche Nation. Most importantly, it violates the rights of Native students to exercise their religious freedom.”