Native students graduation regalia

Native American students in Salamanca were first permitted to wear traditional Seneca regalia during graduation ceremonies in 2017. Now, two years later, Seneca students in Ellicottville have been given permission to wear traditional stoles during commencement later this month.

ELLICOTTVILLE — After a week of administrative meetings, student involvement and social media upheaval, the Ellicottville Central School District overturned a decades-old policy and will allow four Seneca Nation students to wear traditional stoles when they receive their diplomas in June.

Typically, a graduation ceremony is a time for students to show the fruits of their academic labor in the form of pins, stoles, cords and badges.

This year, the four Seneca seniors will graduate with the class of 2019, subjecting the district to an unprecedented push for the rules to be changed.

The purple stoles gifted to the four students by the Seneca Nation were at first deemed not for academic achievement, but rather a cultural symbol, and therefore had no place at the event.

The four young women, National Honor Society members, star athletes, New Visions students and high academic achievers, protested this opinion to the high school principal and district superintendent.

Career stoles, not directly indicative of academic achievement, have been continually allowed at graduations for years. Confusion ran rampant, and seniors spoke of sitting at graduation and engaging in other acts of civil disobedience in solidarity with the Seneca students.

“When I walk across that stage, I am not only just representing myself, but my family, my extended family, my tribe and my Native American ancestors,” said senior Jessica Jimerson, before the policy was changed.

Not many Native American youths graduate from high school, Jimerson said. In fact, Native Americans have the lowest graduation rates of all ethnic groups in the United States.

“I am proud of who I am and what I have accomplished,” she said. “I would love the opportunity to walk across the stage at Ellicottville with my regalia on and show everyone that I am a strong Native American woman who has and will accomplish great things.”

Traditional regalia includes native dresses for women and ribbon shirts for men, the stole, moccasins and other ceremonial wear.

“I grew up watching other seniors graduate with Native American regalia on, and I have always envisioned myself being proud to walk across that stage showing who I am and the culture I represent,” Jimerson said.

After the approval, senior Sierra Maybee voiced her happiness.

“I am so pleased that the school is finally allowing us to wear the stoles at commencement,” she said. “It is a great honor to celebrate our culture in front of the school.”

Maybee said she wants to use it as a moment to inspire other girls like her.

“I want them to see that Native Americans can succeed, can go to college, and can follow their dreams,” she added. “It never should have been an issue in the first place.”

In the wake of the Salamanca City Central School District’s similar overturn two years ago, the Ellicottville School Board dedicated part of its May 21 meeting on the polarizing subject.

School Board President Connie Hellwig issued a statement: “On behalf of the Ellicottville Central School Board of Education, I wish to address the controversy that was created last week regarding the request from Native American students to wear a ‘Native American Stole’ during the ECS Graduation Ceremony.

“We are saddened that inaccurate information was posted on social media sites, and the personal attacks and accusations directed towards (principal) Erich Ploetz,” Hellwig continued. “Mr. Ploetz was acting under the direction and support of the superintendent and Board of Education.

“Over the past few days, we’ve learned and confirmed with the Seneca Nation that these stoles signify academic achievement and accomplishment,” she concluded. “Therefore, we will permit these to be worn during this year’s graduation ceremony as they do, indeed, celebrate academic achievements and accomplishments.”

The Ellicottville Central School graduation will take place June 28 at 7 p.m. in the Ward Gymnasium and Auditorium.