Culture was celebrated Saturday afternoon at Billings Senior High, with Native games and foods, drumming and dancing.
It was all capped by the ceremonial signing of Montana Senate Bill 319, which allows Native American students to wear traditional regalia and objects of cultural significance, including feathers and beads, at graduation ceremonies.
Gov. Steve Bullock was joined for the ceremony by some of the high school students who testified before the Montana Legislature on behalf of the bill. Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, the bill’s sponsor, also was on hand.
Jennifer Smith, director of Indian Education for All for Billings Public Schools, told the crowd on hand for the signing that the bill’s history went back several years. Smith’s predecessor approached the district’s school board about letting the students adorn mortarboards that recognized their culture.
“The school board approved the idea and liked it, but didn’t make it a mandatory thing,” Smith said.
Senior High allowed students that freedom, but the other two Billings high schools kept graduation garb more traditional.
Then out of a community meeting in 2016, which involved Western Native Voice Executive Director Marci McLean, the decision was made to take the issue to the Montana Legislature, Smith said. That’s when Gross got involved.
The state senator thanked McLean and her staff Saturday for their tireless work on the bill. Though it died in committee, legislators were able to get it onto the Senate floor, where it passed.
In the House, people from across the state, including the Billings students, testified in favor of the bill, and shared their stories, Gross said.
“I said what the bill was, and I stepped aside and they told why it was needed,” she said. “So I thank you all for the passage of this bill. It’s a law now."
Gross said she believes it's the first of its kind in the United States. She praised the students who stood up on behalf of the legislation.
“I think the credit for the passage of this bill goes to these kids who lent a Native voice,” she said.
Gross said their advocacy gives her hope for the future “and the leaders that you are already and will be growing into.”
“I expect to see some of you sitting in the seats on the floor in the Senate and the House in a few years,” she said.
One of those students, Cheska Not Afraid, a senior at Skyview High, told the nearly 100 people that the first two years of high school wasn’t easy for her. She struggled, ditching class and coming up with excuses to stay away.
“I kicked it in gear my junior year,” she said. “I realized I needed to change my ways, do it for me, do it for my family, and to show others that I was capable of accomplishing something in my life.”
Not Afraid will graduate on May 28, then head to City College at Montana State University Billings, in hopes of becoming a registered nurse. Her biggest supporters have been her family.
“I’m proud of myself, proud of what I’ve done and most of these accomplishments I’ve made are for my brothers, for my family,” she said. “And now that this bill Senate Bill 319 has passed, I can represent myself, my family and where I come from.”
Bullock said that if the bill was signed at the Montana capitol, it would be done at a table set up in front of several flags. Those flags represent the United States, the state of Montana and the state’s tribal nations.
When people from other countries see the flags and ask about them, Bullock said, they learn about the people who populate the state.
“And they realize that actually the strength of our state is the diversity,” he said. “The different experiences are something we should not only recognize but celebrate.”
And when students advocate for their culture, that takes it to another level, Bullock said.
“When our kids are the ones that are saying as they come up, let me recognize where my heart, where my strength comes from, let me be part of not only celebrating but embracing it, that makes the foundation of our state that much stronger.”