New California Law Permits Cultural Additions to Graduation Gowns

Students can now wear tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment during school graduation ceremonies thanks to a new California law.

Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1248 into law in September, but it came a little too late for Jacob Brown.

Brown graduated in June from El Capitan High School in Lakeside.

Brown, a member of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, wanted to wear his tribal sash and eagle feather when he walked at graduation, but school policy prohibits students from adding anything to the school-issued caps and gowns.

"When you get a feather, you earn that, it's part of you," said Brown, who explained the feather represents years of hard work and is a symbol of accomplishment.

Used extensively in Native American cultural ceremonies, the eagle and eagle feathers, including eagle feet, are sacred to most Native American people, including the Kumeyaay.

"I was so heartbroken and devastated we couldn't even celebrate," said Nancy Brown, Jacob's mom. "Even just a few decades ago natives didn't really graduate at all, so that's why it's such a huge celebration when they do."

AB 1248 was authored by San Diego Assemblymember Todd Gloria.

Gloria said as a Native American, the issue was personal, but took on a broader meaning.

"This started out as a concern within the Native American community, but through the legislative process what we've come to understand is there were other communities that were impacted: African American students who'd want to wear a Kente cloth," he said.

Gloria introduced a nearly identical version of AB 1248 during the 2017 legislative session, but it was vetoed by the governor.

"We settled on some language that still provided some level of discretion for local administrators, particularly when they saw what could be augmentations to the cap and gown that incite violence," Gloria said.

The Grossmont Union High School District sent NBC 7 a statement saying it would comply with the new law and address any specific needs for graduation.

"People don't come in just one size shape and color," added Nancy Brown. "Everyone is different."

Some of those differences can now be acknowledged and embraced during one of life's most defining moments.

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