Earlier this week, Marcus Campbell, the new superintendent of ETHS, called one of the senior graduates at home and asked to visit.
It wasn’t a normal request, but neither were the circumstances.
Campbell and Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, and Keith A. Robinson, associate director of educational services, went to the home of Megan Bang and Lawrence Curley to apologize to their son, Nimkii Curley, and give him his diploma.
The young man did not receive his diploma with his peers at the graduation ceremony last weekend. Instead, he was told he could not cross the stage or sit with other students if he insisted on wearing the eagle feather and beads on his cap, an Ojibwe beaded stole and a Navajo necklace. The four objects represent his legacy – and some are considered sacred.
The Roundtable also visited the family at their home and spoke extensively with Nimkii Curley to understand what happened before, during and after the graduation ceremony. The family said the incident was a matter of religious freedom and cultural expression. And they took the story to social media, where it received national attention.
The Roundtable also asked Campbell to speak about the incident. Campbell, who is director of ETHS, responded by email, writing: ‘I think anything I’ve wanted to share I’ve shared with the family. We had a pleasant conversation about this incident and also discussed the stories and experiences of Indigenous students at ETHS and across the country.
“We are in the process of reviewing our rules regarding graduation. I hope to share something with the community this summer. We will not let this happen again. »
What Nimki curly wore
Nimkii Curley is the Ojibwe Clan of the Turtle and the Navajo Salt Clan of the Black Sheep. He explained that the eagle feather is sacred and used for prayer. It is as important a religious symbol for indigenous peoples as a crucifix, Star of David, hijab, turban or yarmulke is for those of other faiths. The feather represents generational respect, continuity and responsibility to one’s community.
Her mother, Megan Bang, a professor of learning sciences and psychology at Northwestern University and currently senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation, explained the importance of each of the elements. Bang is Fish Clan Ojibwe and Italian. Curley’s father, Lawrence, is Black Sheep Salt Clan Navajo and Turtle Clan Ojibwe.
- The eagle feather, the most important of the four items, was beaded in the colors of the ETHS school by Curley’s mother. Nimkii Curley tied it to the cap so the feather hung down next to his face.
- The long beaded stole was made by Angel Fox Star and is decorated with floral designs common in Ojibwe culture.
- Vincent Romero created the traditional Navajo necklace to represent the Navajo family of Nimkii Curley.
- Mavis Neconish, a Menominee elder and one of four godfather-like Curley namesakes, lovingly beaded her cap. The green leaves represent cedar and the oval shapes represent native flowers of the Council of Three Fires, Ojibwe, Potawotami, and Odawa tribes. The Great Lakes, and Chicagoland in particular, are their home territories.
Curley said event coordinators and security personnel interacted with him twice. The first time, he was in the waiting room with all the other students. He was pushed aside and asked not to wear the beaded cap, the beaded stole, and to hide the necklace so it wouldn’t be seen by the crowd. He refused.
He was offered a plain cap to wear instead, and he also turned it down. He was told that he could not cross the stage to receive his diploma because his cap had been modified, which the ETHS does not allow. But he was told he could sit with his peers.
Yet as he walked into the auditorium with his classmates, a security guard and an event coordinator pulled him aside and asked for the feather attached to his cap. Curley said he explained he was unable to do so due to its religious significance.
His father, Lawrence Curley, a hydrologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saw his son having a serious conversation with two adults who wouldn’t allow him to enter the auditorium with his classmates. He approached and tried to intervene to explain the religious concept to adults confronting his son.
Security guard and event coordinator were resolved. They wouldn’t allow young Curley to sit with his friends unless he handed over the feather and decorated cap to them. He repeatedly explained that he couldn’t do that. But the choice before him was difficult: put on the beaded cap and the feather or leave the ground floor of the auditorium.
Curley said he followed his “moral ethics and listened to what he learned” from his parents, grandparents and elders in his community. He missed his graduation ceremony.
The young man told the Round Table that he was seated in the stands with his family. Her younger sisters were crying, her parents were both proud and furious, and other family members and friends, there to help celebrate, were bewildered. He wanted to stay to support his friends, but admitted to a reporter that when school administrators talked about the school’s good record of practicing racial equity, he asked his parents if they could leave. They did it.
A privileged moment with the family
As Bang explained, it was more than just a high school graduation ceremony.
She said: “My father was 9 years old when he was taken [forced to attend a boarding school]. He’s a residential school survivor. My son is the grandson and great-grandson of residential school survivors. His grandparents were transferred from the reservations to Chicago.
“But they never graduated from high school. His father is a high school dropout, who will eventually return to school and now has graduate degrees, but he was unable to attend a high school diploma. Nimkii is the first graduate from a public high school. It was difficult to go through the school system here.
“Anyone can think it’s no big deal. But for us, the United States has just released its first recognition in the history of boarding schools. It’s not in the distant past. Nimkii’s paternal grandfather tells stories of these experiences. He tells us stories his grandmother told him about the Long March of the Navajos when the Navajos were forcibly driven out by the American cavalry. These atrocities are not new. These are the stories of our family at the kitchen table now.
In May this year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland released the first volume of a survey report on the impact of the country’s Federal Indian School Boarding Initiative, which was in place from 1819 to 1969.
“The consequences of federal policies on Indian boarding schools – including the intergenerational trauma caused by family separation and cultural eradication inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Haaland said in the report.
“We continue to see evidence of this attempted forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples in the disparities communities face,” she continued. “My priority is not only to give voice to survivors and descendants of federal residential school policies, but also to address the lasting legacy of these policies so that Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal. »
Bang said that when he was four years old, his late stepmother was taken from her family. She told the stories of children who tried to retain their native language and were punished by having their lips forcibly burned on heated pipes. Children have often suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse in addition to not being with their loved ones.
The report describes these atrocities and many more, saying:
“The investigation found that the Federal Indian Boarding School System deployed systematic methodologies of weaponization and identity alteration in an effort to assimilate Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education. , including, but not limited to, renaming Indian children from Indian names to English names; cutting the hair of Indian children; discouraging or preventing the use of Native American languages, religions, and cultural practices, native to the Alaskan and Hawaiian; and the organization of Native Hawaiian and Indian children into units to perform military exercises.
“Despite claims to the contrary, the survey found that the school system focused heavily on manual labor and job skills, leaving Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian graduates with employment options often unrelated to the American industrial economy, further disrupting tribal economies. ”
The word has spread
Curley said her public high school graduation ceremony was going to be cause for celebration for her family and her community. He plans to study environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall.
Her mother’s tweet about the incident went viral, with some 349,000 likes, over 28,700 retweets and nearly 5,650 comments on the afternoon of Saturday May 28. Media from across the country and Europe called to interview Curley and his family.
Curley told the roundtable that this event was the culmination of years of frustrating experiences in public schools, most recently at ETHS. He spoke of constantly being confronted with negative stereotypes and images of Native Americans, with the Chicago Blackhawks logo being the most frequently seen example.
Curley alternated between sounding frustrated and understanding. He said: “I’m so sick of always having to be the person in the room to correct hundreds of years of racism. Indigenous youth need to educate non-Indigenous people about Indigenous history and culture.
“I cannot speak for all Native Americans or my clans. I can’t represent the whole race, especially in an educational setting. It’s mentally taxing. »
But moments later, he said, “I’ve been through this before. It’s not new. Educating people who don’t have knowledge, who don’t know history, is never easy. But it’s not their fault: their upbringing failed them, so I try to be lenient. I can’t not try – it’s a matter of justice. I can’t fix this on my own. I have to give grace to people. It’s a structural problem within society based on how US history is taught. It’s not intentional. »
“I want to be a catalyst for change,” he said, “if not for me, for the next generation. It means nothing if they don’t follow through and make the changes that they want.” they promise. I choose to trust.