Liberty Hill senior denied request to wear tribal regalia at graduation

Liberty Hill ISD seniors will graduate on Friday, but one of those students said she may not be able to participate because she adorned her cap in Native American regalia.

"This is my vase project that I submitted this year," said Kaira Kellywood as she showed off her work from her ceramics class. 

Kellywood is graduating from Liberty Hill High School on Friday.

"I was able to express the way I felt through my art," said Kellywood.

Even after turning in her final art projects, self-expression remains important to her.

On her graduation cap, small purple beads line the edge of the mortarboard, and a plume feather hangs next to her tassel.

"A real eagle feather will someday replace this," said Merilyn Betoni, Kellywood’s grandmother.

Kellywood belongs to the Navajo tribe.

"We are proud of our accomplishments, and this is how we show it," said Shawna Onley, Kellywood’s mom.

Ahead of the graduation ceremony, the family adorned and blessed her cap. They said they found out on Wednesday that Kellywood could not wear it.

"We already beaded the cap so everything was ready for graduation, and then we were told ‘no,’" said Kellywood.

Liberty Hill ISD sent the following statement to FOX 7 Austin.

"The district’s guidelines for dress during graduation are such that no student is allowed to decorate or attach anything or otherwise alter their mortarboard in any way. Additionally, our guidelines do not allow for students to have any type of item or dress on the outside of their graduation robes except for school-related stoles. The student’s family was told that their child was welcome to wear their neck ribbon inside of their robe; however, in keeping with these requirements, we could not grant the request for the student to wear a beaded mortarboard, nor wear their neck ribbon outside of their robe during the graduation ceremony."

Kellywood said if she breaks the policy, she will not be able to participate in graduation, but she’ll show up in her cap and gown regardless.

Reporter: "You’re willing to take that risk?"

Kellywood: "Yes."


Last week, the Navajo Nation issued an executive order relating to tribal regalia.

Dr. Buu Nygren, President of the Navajo Nation, said, "Native students have the fundamental right under Navajo, state, and federal law to display cultural and ceremonial regalia at graduation; and such rights cannot be infringed by allegedly facially neutral policies, which, as applied, discriminate against Native students by outlawing expressions of Native culture and beliefs."

The ACLU also has a statement posted on its website that states, "Graduation from high school is a pivotal, once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Many Indigenous students cannot fully celebrate this achievement, from both a spiritual and cultural perspective, unless they are permitted to wear their ceremonial tribal regalia (for example, an eagle feather or beadwork on their graduation cap) during the event. Some schools have prohibited Indigenous students from wearing these items at graduation, claiming that it would violate the school’s dress code and speculating, without any basis, that it would disrupt the ceremony. However, there are various state and federal laws that protect public school students’ rights to wear tribal regalia during commencement."

Two generations sit beside Kellywood in her decision to wear her cap at graduation, whether she’ll cross the stage or not.

"I want my grandkids, my children to all know where they come from," said Betoni.

"I'd rather her show who she is," said Onley. "Instead of walking across the stage knowing she has to hide that away."

The ceremony is Friday at 8 pm.