A North Point High School senior has received permission to wear her Navajo ceremonial attire with her cap and gown for graduation ceremonies Thursday, following a meeting with school system officials.
Dylan McCabe, 18, said she was relieved at the decision to allow her to wear her moccasins and leg wraps along with her ceremonial dress as an expression of her religion and her culture.
“I’m really excited and pleased to know that Charles County Public Schools has taken into consideration my religious and cultural beliefs and granted this,” McCabe said. “I hope it opens up a wider discussion in the county and around the nation about other cultures and other beliefs.”
School system spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson said the dress code for graduation normally calls for black dress shoes without heels or with heels of 2 inches or less, and flesh-colored stockings, but that the school system can make an exemption for religious and cultural beliefs on a case by case basis.
“The assistant superintendent felt that Dylan was very strong in her religion and beliefs and had shown evidence of a strong association throughout her life to her Native American culture and beliefs,” O’Malley-Simpson said.
“There was no resolution as of yet,” her mother Jacquetta Swift said following the meeting Tuesday afternoon. “It doesn’t seem like such an issue, but it has become an issue.”
CCPS spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson said Tuesday that if the appeal had been rejected, the family could have made a further appeal to the board of education, which would have been heard Wednesday.
McCabe, a senior at North Point High School, said the dress and moccasins are an expression of her cultural and religious identity.
McCabe said she had initially planned to wear her ceremonial dress and moccasins on graduation without seeking permission, but after reading stories of other people across the country who had run into difficulties at graduation under similar circumstances, including a 2005 incident in Charles County, McCabe said she decided last week to speak with her principal first.
“I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal,” McCabe said. “I thought North Point was different in the way they embrace so many different cultures and diverse viewpoints.”
The school’s graduation dress code states that females must wear black dress shoes, either flats or heels no higher than two inches.
Dylan’s mother Jacquette Swift said she was told that her daughter’s request to wear the dress under her graduation gown would be granted, but her request to wear the moccasins and leggings that go with it was denied.
“It would be inappropriate to wear just one aspect of the outfit. They complement each other, and they are interrelated. It is important that they be presented together,” Swift said.
“They were bought by my grandparents,” McCabe said. “I know how much they helped me and how much strength they gave me.”
Swift said she began the appeal process Friday, submitting a written request to Sylvia Lawson, assistant superintendent of school administration.
On Sunday, McCabe said she decided to start an online petition on Change.org. She said she didn’t expect such a huge response over the Memorial Day weekend, but by afternoon Tuesday the petition had garnered 4,919 signatures.
“We were trying to keep up with all of the comments, and like every single one, because they were all positive, but people were commenting every few seconds,” McCabe said.
As a Navajo, McCabe said she wore the dress and the moccasins for her Kinaalda, a four-day religious coming-of-age ceremony for Navajo girls.
The four-day ceremony involves performing a number of traditional tasks, including grinding corn and running three times a day, to signify the change from a girl to a young woman, McCabe said.
“It’s to personify and exemplify the strength and endurance of a young Navajo woman,” McCabe said.
On the last day, after staying up 24 hours, she ran 3 miles in the Arizona desert, she said.
“It is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.
The ceremony draws from the Navajo story of Changing Woman, the progenitor of the Navajo people, according to their creation story. McCabe said that during the Kinaalda, the young girl represents Changing Woman and is considered sacred. The outfit and moccasins are meant to reflect what Changing Woman wore.
“She is considered holy during that time, she is the embodiment of Changing Woman. People come to her for blessings, and she is able to bestow that on people at that time,” Swift said.
“Navajo culture and religion are one and the same,” added McCabe. “This is not just my cultural and traditional clothing, it is also my religious clothing. Denying me the right to wear this is denying my religious freedom.”
She said it has been difficult being Navajo in an area with such a small American Indian population.
“Being a Native person in a predominantly non-Native community, expressing myself and my tradition and culture and family way of life is a lot harder. I’ve met a ton of people who’ve never met a Native American before, who didn’t think Native people still existed, or who say ignorant things,” McCabe said. “Being able to walk across that stage in something that incredibly important to me, culturally, traditionally, religiously, that’ll be a big moment for me, being able to wear something that has carried me through other rites of passage.”
McCabe said she hoped the event would be a learning experience for the school system and the public about Native American culture and beliefs.
“Hopefully, it will change something and get people to see Native peoples in a different light, educate people on Native cultures and maybe get people to see things differently,” McCabe said.
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