David Paoli, 17, had
his sealskin-adorned mortarboard graduation cap confiscated
by a staff member at West Anchorage High School prior to his
ANCHORAGE, Alaska Last week, 17-year-old David Paoli should
have accepted his diploma at his West Anchorage High School graduation
ceremony with pride in both his milestone accomplishment, and in
his cultureexpressed through the sealskin-adorned mortarboard
graduation cap his mother Indigenized the year before to wear at
her own master's graduation.
Instead, the capembellished with an abalone button, sealskin,
and beading edgework to represent the family's Inupiaq culturewas
confiscated immediately prior to the ceremony by a staff member
who incorrectly believed it went against policy.
In reality, Paoli had followed school procedure by seeking prior
approval to wear cultural regalia to his graduation through a district-wide
notification process instituted in 2019, but the staff member was
unaware of the changed policy.
"The first thing he said to me was 'they took my sealskin cap,
mom,'" said Paoli's mother, Ayyu Qassataq. Her son's father, who
was on the other side of the procession of students before the ceremony,
informed her that the sealskin cap had been confiscated. "Throughout
the ceremony, I was fighting within myself because I wanted to be
mentally present for my son's graduation. And I kept telling myself,
'I'm not going to let them take this from us. They're not going
to take this from us, too.'"
Ayyu Qassataq and her
17-year-old son David Paoli.
That night, Qassataq emailed school officials and the following
morning, with her son's permission, shared their story on Facebook,
including the systemic oppression Alaska Natives have faced in the
school system for generations. The family got their cap backit
had been held among other confiscated items from the ceremony. One
week later, the post (subsequently printed as an op-ed in the Anchorage
Daily News) had been liked and shared more than six thousand
By the following afternoon, Anchorage School District Superintendent
Deena Bishop suspended the policy requiring students to seek permission
from their school to wear cultural regalia. She said the policy
was intended to allow student's cultural expression while seeing
that students avoided potentially inappropriate or offensive adornments.
"It was human error in a very large school district," Bishop told
Native News Online. She said the school's assistant principal
who was responsible for preparing staff for graduation was out on
emergency leave, so the staff member that took his placethe
one who took Paoli's cap and replaced it with a plain motorboardwasn't
properly trained about the district's new allowance of cultural
"We look at it as really an alignment of the planets to make something
happen to call for change and enlighten people on the bigger issue,"
Bishop said. "It's not just about a motorboard, you know, it really
is about ASDs connection to our student groups, our parent groups,
the first peoples of Alaska."
Anchorage School District is the largest in the state with close
to 8,000 Native students, who represent 25 percent of the student
population. In addition to Native students, Anchorage public schools
are among some of the most diverse schools in the country, according
to 2010 census data analyzed by a local professor.
Of 20 graduation ceremonies throughout the district, Paoli's school
in West Anchorage was one of the first. Before the regalia policy
was suspended, Paoli's classmate was also impacted when she was
denied permission by the school to wear her Greenlandic shawl over
her gown. She chose to forgo the school ceremony in favor of a culturally-grounded
backyard graduation ceremony instead, according to a local
Superintendent Bishop told Native News Online that this,
too, was an error in the process. She's not sure if specific administrators
responsible for confiscating Paoli's cap or denying his classmate
her right to wear traditional regalia faced consequences, but Qassataq
said despite the public outcry, she personally doesn't think those
staff members should be fired.
"What happened to my son is a symptom of this much bigger systemic
problem," Qassataq said. "The person who took my son's cap graduated
from East High School (in Anchorage) with me, raised in a district
that both then and now has highly problematic teachings about Alaska
Native people. The children who are learning in our schools grow
up to become the adults who make mistakes like these."
Reeducating the educators
In various conversations with school administrators, Qassataq said
many expressed shock about what happened to her son.
"For me, and for a lot of our Native people, it's not shocking
at all," she said. "Of course, it was deeply disturbing and outrageous,
but not shocking, because it's a symptom of deep ignorance about
our people, and the systemic devaluing of us that has happened over
The education system in Alaska was created with the expressed purpose
of removing Native students from their cultures.
From the late 1800s to the 1970s, Alaska Natives were forced into
a newly formed Western education system established within mission
schools in some rural communities, and later taken from communities
that lacked primary or secondary schools and sent to boarding schools
run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. At these schools, students
were banned from speaking their Native languages, eating their Native
foods, and participating in their traditional cultures through forced
assimilation. Far from their families and communities, with little
to no protection, young students were often subjected to abuse and
show that the impact of the boarding school era has led to increased
rates of alcoholism, abuse and suicide among Alaska Natives.
But this history isn't taught in the Anchorage public school system.
Qassataq said that her one main request of the school district as
a result of this event is to do a better job in reeducating its
educators, including through cultural training and expanded Indigenous
curriculum beyond just one unit currently taught in the third grade.
She says Bishop personally committed to her that this will happen
under her leadership.
"As educators, it's critical that they know this history because
they've inherited the legacy of it. As leadership with responsibility
for overseeing the education of our children, they have to really
come at it at two-fold: to do a much better job of teaching our
students about the first peoples of this place, and reeducating
the educators themselves about this history so that they can be
protectors of our children."
Superintendent Bishop said the school's administration plans to
meet for a cultural training and leadership summit in July, and
has invited Qassataq as one of a handful of community members to
speak to its educators.
Additionally, a new textbook on Indigenous culture written with
input from Alaska Native elders and cultural bearers across the
state will be incorporated into the third grade curriculum beginning
next school year, she said.
"A key piece of that is that we're not saying how Alaska Native
people were, that we're actually bringing Alaska Native cultures
into the present," Bishop said of the textbook.
In Anchorage School District's Title VI Indian Education and Migrant
Educationa department created by the U.S. government in school
systems to address unique academic and cultural needs of Alaska
Native and Native American studentsSenior Director Doreen
Brown (Yup'ik) said the new textbook is just one example of how
the school district has been working towards a more inclusive and
informed school culture.
"I work for a westernized system and I believe in education, but
there is conflict," Brown, whose own mother was impacted by the
boarding school era, said. "I chose to work for a Western education
system, but behind the scenes and in front of the scenes, I am trying
to make it more culturally responsive, and the best it can be for
Qassataq recognized the textbook as an important step, but wants
to see its teachings become incorporated throughout the K-12 curriculum
in the district. "Can you imagine descending from countless generations
raised in this place, representing a quarter of the student population,
but really only seeing yourself reflected in the curriculum once
in a short third grade 'unit'?" she said. "Within our Indigenous
knowledge systems are thousands of years of rich knowledge about
this place, including how to be in good relationships with our lands
and each other. The education our students receive will only grow
stronger with inclusion of Indigenous and BIPOC peoples' cultures,
perspectives, and histories. Otherwise, we're just brown bodies
in a system that doesn't reflect us at all."
Raising the tide for all
At a school board meeting earlier this week, dozens
testified in support of changes to the regalia policy, urging
the school district to avoid what one Native American Rights Fund
(NARF) lawyer called a "legally untenable position of determining
which cultural regalia is worthy of respect and acknowledgement."
NARF's attorney Erin Dougherty Lynch wrote in the organization's
three page testimony that the school's policy could potentially
"Many Native students wear their traditional regalia to recognize
their academic success, their accomplishment of receiving their
diploma, and their passage into adulthood," Dougherty
Lynch's letter reads. "This is no different than students wearing
honor society, ROTC, or other cords or stoles recognizing academic
achievement. To permit some students to recognize their academic
accomplishments but deny Native students the same form of speech
is viewpoint discrimination."
Superintendent Bishop said the school district will convene on
the policy in the coming weeks, and likely defer to the guidance
of Brown and her Native American Advisory Board.
In other states, such as Washington and California, officials are
passing legislation codifying the rights of Native Americans. In
2015, Washingtonthe second state behind Montanamandated
that tribal history be taught in all of its school districts, with
the input from the state's 29 federally recognized tribes. In April,
the California State Assembly's Education Committee unanimously
approved a bill
that will protect Native American students' rights to wear cultural
items at graduation.
Though Paoli's opportunity to wear his family's cultural regalia
at his high school graduation can never be given back, his mother
hopes the outcome of this experience will drive significant change.
"Of course, this expands so far beyond our Native children," Qassataq
said. "In any movement, there is a desire to say, 'and what about,
what about and what about...' and they are absolutely right. The
system truly needs to transform in order to better reflect its students.
But I really do feel that making this right for Indigenous children
will help to raise the tide for all of us. The time for healing
and transformation is upon us, and our society will be better and
stronger for it."