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'Failed to uphold his duty': Oklahoma Gov. Stitt vetoes tribal regalia bill, drawing condemnation of national and tribal leaders

ACLU of Oklahoma

A bill that would have strengthened protections for Indigenous students who want to wear tribal regalia in Oklahoma was vetoed by Gov. Kevin Stitt on Monday.

Senate Bill 429, otherwise known as the tribal regalia bill, had bipartisan support in both the Oklahoma state House and Senate. Only one person voted against it in the House.

Tribal leaders like Choctaw Chief Gary Batton, Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill and Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. are calling on Oklahoma lawmakers to override the governor's veto.

"This is a popular, common-sense measure with no costs for the state or schools," Batton wrote in a press release. "We hope the House and the Senate will quickly override the veto to provide more freedom for Oklahoma students who want to honor their heritage."

That's something Senator John Montgomery, R-Lawton, one of the bill's authors, is considering.

"It's certainly an avenue that I'm looking at to try to figure out, 'do we have the votes for it?,'" the Lawton Republican said. "I'm inclined in my reading on it is most likely I do."

In a statement explaining his veto, Stitt said there isn't anything on the books that prevents a school from allowing Native students from wearing tribal regalia at graduation.

In 2021, then state Attorney General Mike Huntersent a letter to the Secretary of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction saying students should be allowed to wear such things as eagle feathers on their caps or other items in line with the students’ religious or cultural practice.

He pointed to the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act:

Montgomery says SB 429 would just strengthen what’s already on the books. The bill, in his mind, is a clarifying action.

"This is something that should be allowed," said Montgomery. "[It clarifies] that students know what they're able to do here for these graduation ceremonies."

Cindy Nguyen from the ACLU of Oklahoma agrees, and says she's heard from Native students that have been denied the right to wear tribal regalia in their district. The ACLU has been advocating for this bill to pass.

"It costs nothing to implement, it doesn't hurt anybody. So it makes no sense for the governor to veto it," Nguyen said.

Indigenous citizens in Oklahoma and others are reacting to the veto with outrage over what they see as a basic right. Sarah Adams, a Choctaw citizen who has also advocated for the bill, sees the denial by certain school districts as a violation of the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act.

"I think it's just another oppression tactic by our state, the leader of our state, our governor, who will continue to oppress communities of color, queer communities, and especially for some and some reason specifically attacking children this legislative session," said Adams, who is also on the board of the ACLU of Oklahoma.

She said graduations are joyous occasions.

"If you've been to any graduations in the last decade that allows students to be able to express themselves or wear what they want, you will see that these graduations are not divisive — they're celebratory," said Adams.

Stitt's veto has drawn criticism from national organizations as well.

Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, said that Stitt has, "has failed to uphold his duty to the over 130,000 Native students in public schools in Oklahoma."

Stitt’s position is that any decision like this needs to ultimately be decided by local school districts — not the state government, and that this bill would allow anyone to go over the heads of local superintendents to wear what they want.

It's unclear if the veto is part of theGovernor's fight with the Senate over education funding bills having to do with spending and school vouchers.

A bill similar to SB429 to prevent public and charter schools from denying Native students from Tribal regalia was introduced in 2021, but failed.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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