Soon-to-be-former Service High School senior Charitie Ropati beamed with pride and overflowed with emotions Tuesday afternoon, as the class of 2019 held its graduation at the Sullivan Arena.

"To be able to wear my regalia is something that I hold close to my heart because this is something that we should have always done," Ropati said. "Because this is stolen land and Native students do have the right to wear regalia."

The push to allow all graduating students, including Alaska Natives, to wear traditional objects that celebrate their identity or cultural heritage started last year by Service parent Jacqueline Morris. 

"There was no policy in place," Morris said. "All the principals from all the high schools in the [Anchorage School District] banned together, to stay unified, and just wear regular mortarboard caps and gowns."

A year ago, Service High School Principal Frank Hauser allowed Jacqueline's son, Tigran Andrew, to wear a sealskin hat.

"He really blessed our family by doing that," Morris said. "After I found out there that was no policy but they did not like for you to change up your look, I fought really hard for them to pass a policy and make it possible for all nationalities to wear their regalia from their culture to celebrate such an important milestone, graduating from high school."

Morris' efforts were address by the Anchorage School District's Native Advisory Committee, which Ropati served on for two years as its student representative.

"Alaska Native and Native American students continue to have some of the lowest graduation rates and higher rates of dropping out when compared to any other demographic," Ropati said. "As a student, I found that really appalling."

Statewide dropout rates from grades 7 through 12 are tracked by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development's data center. They show Alaska Native students' dropout rates hovering near 6% in recent years, versus an overall dropout rate typically at or just below 4%.

Ropati's hope is that younger Native children will see the regalia and be inspired to graduate as well.

"One thing I realized and the Native Advisory Committee realized is that if Native youth wear their regalia, potentially youth in the audience and youth who are watching, they can see themselves in that position like in five or six years." Ropati said. "I know if I was 5 and I saw a Native woman or you know, a Native boy standing on the stage as class speaker, wearing the regalia, beaded cap, beaded jewelry, I could potentially see myself in that position." 

ASD passed the policy in March, with graduating students who wanted to participate required to complete a notification form by May 1.

Morris says while the policy is a small victory, there is still more work to do.

"Right now we are only allowed to change our mortarboard cap," Morris said. "We're not allowed to wear a traditional Yup'ik headdress and I'm hoping to get that changed."

Morris has a daughter that will graduate in two years.

On Tuesday, Ropati struggled to hold back the tears.

"This small victory is just one step in our journey," Ropati said. "As we continue down the path of our lives, we must keep in mind who we are and where we come from."

Video from ASD's 2019 high school graduations can be viewed on its website.

Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.

YOU MAY ALSO BE INTERESTED IN: