Utah Polynesian community wins appeal to wear cultural attire at graduation

By Aaron Ryan

By Aaron Ryan, Te Rito journalism cadet. 



A Polynesian community in the Jordan District of Utah, USA, has won an appeal to wear cultural accessories on top of their high school graduation outfits this week. 

A rule in House Bill 30, a by-law passed in December 2021,  forbids high school graduates from wearing cultural items on top of their graduation regalia.

Valley High School's Jade Ioane was instrumental in getting this ruling scrapped. 

She believed the board was attempting to prevent the local Polynesian population from expressing themselves.

“Basically, it says that we are not allowed to wear anything that is not given by the school.

“So to me, that was just them saying, you can't represent your culture as you walk."

First Amendment right

Under the First Amendment rights in the United States of America, people have the freedom to express themselves without government interference.

Ioane and many others in the community reminded the board of that at two meetings before this week.

"I feel like that's really what influenced them to be like this: 'We either say yes, and everything goes smoothly and we can put guidelines on it and they can still wear what they want to wear or say no and then it's like a lawsuit at that point'.” 

“They asked, 'If we say no, 'are we looking at a lawsuit?' And that's exactly what it was."

Immigrants from the South Pacific Islands first arrived in Utah 100 years ago. 

Thousands of Pacific Islanders were converted by Mormon missionaries, and now Polynesian immigrants from Hawai'i, Sāmoa, Tahiti, Fiji, and Tonga make up one of the largest Polynesian communities in the United States. 

'Surprising' attitude

Many Pacific Island events and celebrations are seen within many communities in Utah.

The 18-year-old thought the regalia rule was not a true reflection of the opinion of the wider population in their area.   

"It was just surprising because every person outside of the culture that I've spoken to about the issue, they were like, 'we love to see when you guys share your culture with us, we love to see when you guys perform'.”

Ioane brought her concerns to the district's board two weeks ago. But, since it was not on the original agenda at the first meeting they could not give any feedback until the following week.

A Tiktok video was posted online of Ioane speaking, which attracted attention from the community, which joined her last Tuesday at the final meeting.

The board overturned the decision and has allowed high school students in 2022 to wear cultural attire with their regalia. 

'Be proud'

These include but are not limited to necklaces such as ulas and leis (traditional flower necklaces), as well as headpieces that represent their culture.   

"For future generations, I want them to be able to carry their lineage on their back when they walk across that stage.”

“I want them to be able to be proud of where they're from and not have to hide it because of a policy, because of a rule.” 

The ruling will be re-evaluated in 2023 but it was a victory for the small Pacific Islands community in Utah.