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Adornment of Cultural Regalia During Graduation; What Cultural Identity Means to ASD Students and Alumni


The Anchorage School District is home to some of the most diverse schools in the U.S. at all levels. One way ASD students may honor their heritage is through the adornment of cultural regalia during graduation ceremonies.

“Wearing my Yup’ik headdress was really important for me because to me my headdress represents strength,” said Nyché Andrew, a Service High School class of 2021 alumni who is Yup'ik and Inupiaq. “Because throughout my time at the District there hasn’t always been times where I was proud of who I was. There were times when I was shy, unconfident.  I didn’t love who I was because I was Native because of what I’d hear from some of my classmates. But when I graduated… I was only proud of who I was.”

ASD Administrative Regulation (AR) 5127 was written with consultation from the Native Advisory Committee, the Student Advisory Board, ASD Secondary leadership and high school principals, Native leadership clubs, the Multicultural Education Concerns Advisory Committee, and Alaska Native cultural experts. The AR provides guidance for students and families to honor their heritage through the adornment of cultural regalia during their graduation ceremony.

“Cultural identity to me is who I am as a person or who I was as a person,” said Keyanna Anderson, a senior at Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School. Anderson is Yup’ik and has family from Bristol Bay. “It makes me, my people, and my family stand out because of what we’ve been through and all the hardships we had to go through just to get an education in general.”

Most states with large Indigenous populations have a policy written at the state level, according to Dr. Kersten Johnson-Struempler, Senior Director, Secondary Education. With no State policy, ASD was one of the first large districts in Alaska to instate an AR in partnership with the community about regalia which encourages and provides families guidance around cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies. 

A student may adorn the cap, gown, or stole customarily worn at their school with traditional objects of tribal regalia or recognized objects of cultural significance. Furthermore, a student may choose to replace the graduation cap with cultural headwear.

Paul McDonogh is Sugpiaq and the Supervisor of Indigenous Programs at ASD.  He encourages families to think about what graduation means to them. “This change with graduation regalia, I think, is more than one step forward in celebrating – it’s also celebrating with the ability to have an active conversation.”  McDonogh is a 2009 graduate of Eagle River High School, and like most ASD grads, wore the customary cap and gown instead of his Sugpiaq regalia. “To the teachers and families, I would say, go ask your students: ‘How do you feel about graduating? Do you plan to wear regalia?’ Sometimes they may not know, but I think inviting the conversation is really where we are at now. It’s such an inspiring and powerful place to be.”

During 2022 ASD graduation ceremonies, cultural ambassadors will be available to assist students and bridge the gap if there is a question about the significance of student regalia.

For a successful and inclusive commencement, respectful observance of Board Policies and Administration Regulations pertaining to cultural regalia are a shared responsibility of schools, families, leaders, and cultural ambassadors. For a list of frequently asked questions about adornment and the AR, please visit the ASD website.

Romig Middle School eighth grader Abad Vargas looks forward to celebrating his origins once he reaches graduation. Vargas says it is an important part of his Mexican heritage. “I think it’s really important to raise awareness, to let people know where you come from and to educate them.”