Pearl High student wins battle to wear Native American regalia at graduation ceremony

Zuri Wilson receives her diploma from Pearl High School on May 18, 2023, inside the Mississippi...
Zuri Wilson receives her diploma from Pearl High School on May 18, 2023, inside the Mississippi Coliseum(ACLU and ACLU of Mississippi)
Published: Jul. 3, 2023 at 2:27 PM CDT
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PEARL, Miss. (WLBT) - After initially being denied by the Pearl Public School District’s school board, Zuri Wilson, a graduating senior, was permitted to wear traditional Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe regalia during the commencement ceremony.

“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have had to go through this whole thing,” said Dyleen, Zuri’s grandmother. “We wouldn’t have had to go and ask permission.”

Zuri’s mother, Merissa Wilson, had made the request at a school board meeting in January, asking that her daughter be allowed to wear an eagle feather on her graduation cap and be wrapped in a traditional star quilt by her family members after exiting the stage, two essential aspects of the family’s cultural and spiritual tradition.

However, the school district informed Merissa in February that exceptions to the district’s strict commencement dress code would not be allowed, a decision illegal under state law.

In 2020, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the state’s federally-recognized tribe, was able to get Section 11-61-3(2) of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act codified into law. The law states that a government entity may not prohibit an individual from wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at a public event. With its passing, Mississippi became one of 14 states that have laws specifically protecting the right of indigenous people to wear tribal regalia.

With the assistance of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU), the family sent a letter to the school board informing them that they were in violation of the law due to being a state-funded organization.

After receiving the letter, the school board immediately reversed their decision, and Zuri was able to wear her eagle feather and be wrapped in her quilt during the ceremony. However, even after the board recognized Zuri’s right to wear her regalia, school staff, and faculty members continued to confront her during the ceremony, telling her that she needed to remove her feather while she was in line to walk onstage.

Zuri Wilson is surrounded by her mother and brothers (Carmyne on the left and Jaikan on the...
Zuri Wilson is surrounded by her mother and brothers (Carmyne on the left and Jaikan on the right) after being wrapped in her star quilt.(ACLU, ACLU of Mississippi, Harold Lyle Films)

“They had to go double-check with the principal to see if I’m allowed to wear it,” Zuri said. “After graduation, this teacher came up to me, and she apologized to me. She was just saying how wonderful it is to see somebody like me being able to do this at my graduation.”

Following tradition was incredibly important for Zuri, not just because it was culturally significant or because the dropout rate among Native Americans was disproportionately high, but because the right to wear tribal regalia is one that was stripped from Zuri’s family members in the past.

“Being able to walk across the stage wearing my eagle feather made me feel proud, of myself wearing it, of knowing that I honored my family, and knowing my grandma didn’t get to do that,” Zuri said. “I know I honored her by walking across that stage wearing it and getting my star quilt.”

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