‘Showing off who I am’: Anchorage seniors graduate in sealskin, kuspuks and other regalia

a high school graduate shakes principal's hand
Jade Wren, Service High School graduate, walks on stage to receive her high school diploma on May 18, 2023. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District students no longer have to wear a typical cap and gown to their high school graduation. Now, they can wear any form of cultural regalia.

Jade Wren was among the students who graduated this week and took advantage of the updated policy. She’s Inupiaq and spent time growing up in Kotzebue and Dillingham. She walked across the stage at the Alaska Airlines Center Thursday wearing a Kuspuk, instead of the common graduation gown.

In the days leading up to her graduation, she said she felt proud that she could show her Inupiaq heritage during the ceremony. 

“I will be going in a lot more confident and a lot more happy than just, ‘Oh, it’s graduation day, I’m going to grab my diploma and leave,’” she said. “It’s going to be a lot more, and also the stuff that I wear will be more memorable.”

Wren also wore moccasins made of moose hide. Her graduation cap had sealskin and jade fastened to the top. And it was bordered with green and yellow beadwork — Service High School’s colors. Wren said Indigenous women in her life gifted her many of the items she wore. 

“Just showing off who I am and my culture and also the people that again have helped me get to where I am,” she said.

a photo of a decorate cap of flowers made out of seal skin and jade
Jade Wren decorated her cap with sealskin and jade for graduation. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Wren is one of about 8,000 Alaska Native students in the district. 

Paul McDonogh, supervisor of the district’s Indigenous education program, said the Native Advisory Committee suggested the updates to the regalia policy, which allow students to ditch the traditional cap and gown. Also, they no longer need to get their regalia approved by staff. It’s the third time the district has revised the policy in five years.

“Our intention is to really allow traditional ceremonial expressions that groups of people have always done to celebrate rites of passage and to bring them here,” he said.

The district’s policy update also follows a parallel, statewide push to allow regalia at public ceremonies. The Alaska Legislature passed a bill in 2019 mandating that state agencies, universities and schools allow tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at public events, including graduation ceremonies. 

McDonogh said, as a result of the district policy, he has noticed students from different cultures taking an interest in learning more about their heritage and connecting with their elders and family members. He said the decision to drop the permission form for cultural regalia stemmed from a desire to build trust with students and families.

“There’s a spiritual impact of this that I think is really awesome,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the material used to make Jade Wren’s footwear. They were made from moose hide.

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Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

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