Early this week, Marcus Campbell, the incoming Superintendent of ETHS, called one of the graduating seniors at home and asked to visit.
It was not a normal request, but then, neither were the circumstances.
Campbell and Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, and Keith A. Robinson, Associate Principal of Educational Services, visited the home of Megan Bang and Lawrence Curley to apologize to their son, Nimkii Curley, and present him with 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 walk across the stage or sit with fellow students if he insisted on wearing the eagle feather and beading on his cap, an Ojibwe beaded stole and Navajo necklace. All four items represent his heritage – and some are considered sacred.
The RoundTable also visited with the family at their home and spoke to Nimkii Curley at length to understand what happened before, during and after the graduation ceremony. The family said the incident constitiutes an issue of religious freedom and cultural expression. And they have taken the story to social media, where it has received national attention.
The RoundTable also asked Campbell to talk about the incident. Campbell, who is ETHS principal, responded via email, writing: “I think all that I have wanted to share, I have shared with the family. We had a nice conversation about this incident and we also discussed the stories and experiences of indigenous students at ETHS and around the country.
“We are revisiting our rules about graduation. I hope to share something with the community this summer. We will not let this happen again.”
What Nimkii Curley was wearing
Nimkii Curley is Turtle Clan Ojibwe and Black Sheep Salt Clan Navajo. He explained that the eagle feather is sacred and used for prayer. It is to indigenous people as important a religious symbol as a crucifix, a star of David, a hijab, a turban or a yarmulke is to those of other faiths. The feather represents generational respect, continuity and responsibility to one’s community.
His mother, Megan Bang, Professor of Learning Sciences and Psychology at Northwestern University and currently serving as the Senior Vice President at the Spencer Foundation, explained the significance of each of the items. 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 with ETHS’ school colors by Curley’s mother. Nimkii Curley attached it to the cap so the feather was dangling down by his face.
- The long beaded stole was made by Angel Fox Star and is decorated with floral designs common in Ojibwe culture.
- Vincent Romero made the traditional Navajo necklace to represent Nimkii Curley’s Navajo family.
- Mavis Neconish, a Menominee elder and one of Curley’s four namesakes, similar to a godparent, lovingly beaded his cap. The green leaves represent cedar and the oval shapes represent native flowers from the Council of Three Fires, of the Ojibwe, Potawotami and Odawa tribes. The great lakes, and Chicagoland specifically, are their original territories.
On graduation day
Curley said the event coordinators and security personnel interacted with him twice. The first time, he was in the waiting room with all of the other students. He was pulled aside and asked not to wear the beaded cap, the beaded stole and to hide the necklace so it would not be visible to the crowd. He declined.
He was offered a plain cap to wear instead, and he declined that as well. He was told he would not be able to walk across the stage to receive his diploma because his cap was altered, which ETHS does not allow. But he was told he could sit with his peers.
Yet, as he entered 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 that because of its religious significance.
His father, Lawrence Curley, a hydrologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saw that his son was in a serious conversation with two adults who were not allowing him to walk into the auditorium with his classmates. He approached and tried to intervene to explain the religious concept to the adults confronting his son.
The security guard and event coordinator were resolute. They would not allow the younger Curley to sit with his friends unless he handed them the feather and decorated cap. He repeatedly explained he could not do that. But the choice demanded of him was stark: hand over the beaded cap and feather or leave the auditorium’s main floor.
Curley said he followed his “moral ethic and listened to what he had been taught” by his parents, his grandparents and elders within his community. He sat out his graduation ceremony.
The young man told the RoundTable he sat in the bleachers with his family. His younger sisters were crying, his 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 the school administrators spoke about the school’s good record of practicing racial equity, he asked his parents if they could leave. They did.
A special family moment
As Bang explained, this 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 boarding school survivor. My son is the grandson and great-grandson of boarding school survivors. His grandparents were relocated from reservations to Chicago.
“But they never graduated from high school. His dad is a high school pushout, who would eventually return to school and now has graduate degrees, but he did not get to participate in a high school graduation. Nimkii is the first one to graduate from a public high school. It has been hard to get through the school system here.
“Everyone else may think that it’s not a big deal. But for us, the U.S. just released its first acknowledgement of the boarding school history. It’s not in the distant past. Nimkii’s paternal grandfather tells stories about what those experiences were like. He tells us stories that his grandmother told him about the Navajo long walk when Navajo were forcibly removed by the U.S. cavalry. These atrocities are not a long time ago. They are the stories of our family at the kitchen table now.”
In May of this year, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland released the first volume of an investigative 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 Indian boarding school policies – including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4-years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said Haaland in the report.
“We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face,” she continued. “It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”
Bang said at the age of four her late mother-in-law 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. The children often dealt with physical, sexual and emotional abuse in addition to not being with their loved ones.
The report outlines these atrocities and many others, saying:
“The investigation found that the federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies in an attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; cutting the hair of Indian children; discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions and cultural practices; and organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills.
“Despite assertions to the contrary, the investigation found that the school system largely focused on manual labor and vocational skills that left American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian graduates with employment options often irrelevant to the industrial U.S. economy, further disrupting Tribal economies.”
The word has spread
Curley said his public high school graduation ceremony was going to be a cause for celebration for his family and community. He plans to study environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall.
His mother’s tweet about this incident went viral, with some 349,000 likes, more than 28,700 retweets and nearly 5,650 comments as of the afternoon Saturday, May 28. Media outlets from around the country and Europe have 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 being confronted constantly with negative stereotypes and imagery about Native Americans, the Chicago Blackhawks’ logo being the most frequently seen example.
Curley alternated between sounding frustrated and understanding. He said, “I am so done with always having to be the person in the room to correct hundreds of years of racism. Native youth have to educate non-Native people about indigenous history and culture.
“I can’t speak for all Native Americans or my clans. I can’t represent the entire race, especially in an educational setting. It is mentally taxing.”
But moments later he said, “I’ve experienced this before. It’s not new. Educating people who don’t have knowledge, who are ignorant of history, is never easy. But it’s not their fault: their education failed them, so I try to be forgiving. I cannot not try – it’s about justice. I can’t fix this by myself. I need to allow people grace. It’s a structural issue within society based on how U.S. 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 they are promising. I am choosing to trust.”