Graduation dress dispute in South Dakota ends

Oelrichs, South Dakota (AP) May 2010

An American Indian high school senior in southwest South Dakota who lost a court battle to wear traditional Lakota dress to his graduation says he will not be at the ceremony, but not because of the dispute.

Aloysius Dreaming Bear said he will instead be attending the funeral of his grandfather, who passsed away.

“I would have gone” to the graduation ceremony, said Dreaming Bear, 19. “And I suppose, if I’m required to, I would have worn the cap and gown. But now I’m going to attend my grandfather’s services.”

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Viken ruled May 18 that the Oelrichs School District could require Dreaming Bear to wear a traditional cap and gown.

Dreaming Bear had argued that such a requirement infringed on his First Amendment rights. He had sought a permanent injunction and $1 in damages in a federal lawsuit.

He said he wanted to honor his culture and his people by wearing traditional dress. The school said a cap and gown was required of all graduates, and that the district honors its Indian students with a feather ceremony before graduation in which female tribal students receive an eagle plume and male students receive an eagle feather to wear as they cross the stage.

Viken said Dreaming Bear did not show that he would be harmed by the school’s cap-and-gown policy. The judge noted the school also was allowing Dreaming Bear to remove his cap and gown after crossing the stage to receive his diploma and to wear his traditional Lakota clothing for the remainder of the ceremony.

Viken also said the graduation proceeding is a school-sponsored event, and “the students’ speech, including that of Mr. Dreaming Bear, is school-sponsored speech.”

“Clearly, the graduation exercises are not a public forum open to public expressions of speech,” the judge said.

Don Porter, the lawyer for Oelrichs Superintendent Larry Jaske and school board members, said they were pleased with the opinion.

Dreaming Bear said he hopes future generations of Lakota young people will continue to stand up against what they perceive as injustices.

“I’m glad that I did give it a good fight and stood up against the higher authority, if you will,” he said. “We need to start standing up to people who tell us ‘no,’ that we can’t do things in the way of our culture.”