A request to wear Native American garb at commencement created some controversy at Kansas University.
It is written that all graduates participating in Sunday's commencement at Kansas University wear traditional academic regalia.
Unwritten custom allows jubilant Jayhawkers to decorate caps and gowns with balloons, drawings, glitter, writing -- you name it. On the march down Campanile Hill into Memorial Stadium, about anything goes. Grads tote guitars, champagne, kids, canoes, dogs and other cherished items.
Dorothy Stites, a Lawrence senior about to receive a bachelor's degree in communication studies, seeks to amend KU tradition.
She petitioned for permission to wear a Native American ceremonial dress at commencement instead of a black cap and gown. The long black velvet dress she has chosen is bedecked with embroidery and beads. In the Kiowa tradition, a belt secures small purses containing personal items. Buckskin leggings cover her feet. An eagle feather adorns her hair.
Stites also urged KU to amend policy so students could wear commencement regalia that honors any nationality or culture.
Initial response from KU's Laura Morgan, assistant director of the Student Assistance Center, was that giving in to Stites might encourage folks to parade down the hill in skimpy swimsuits or other unsuitable attire.
An appeal to George McCleary, chair of the commencement committee, resulted in a letter stating the university would be unable to address the proposed policy change until after the 1996 commencement.
The committee suggested Stites wear her Native American clothing under the regulation cap and gown. She rejected the idea.
Upon further review, it was decided Stites wouldn't be removed from the procession line if she wore something other than a cap and gown.
"We're not using marshal-law tactics," McCleary said. "We're not going to deny her the right to process."
As in the past, he said, graduates expressing themselves in a "tasteless" manner would be yanked from line.
"I can't see how her native regalia is going to be tasteless," McCleary said. "We're well out of that particular realm."
He'd prefer that Stites and other new graduates, regardless of cultural heritage, demonstrate respect for a ceremony that links all KU alumni.
"We would hope she would show more respect for her alma mater," McCleary said.
Stites never expected the issue to cause a ruckus. She didn't anticipate students on a campus bus would call her names or that faculty in class would make derogatory comments about her objective.
"I had faith in this university that I wouldn't be confronted by this. I've gotten more criticism than support. But that's a responsibility I've taken on," she said.
Stites said the commencement debate raised an issue Native American students at KU know well but rarely discuss publicly.
"It has brought blatant racism out to the forefront," she said. "It's not about dress. It's about racism."
She said Indian students at KU faced frequent discrimination in the classroom, isolation in campus living groups and stereotype in the community. This exacerbates typical financial and academic challenges posed by college, she said.
"It's been such a struggle to graduate. Many don't make it," she said.
Stites, 35, is married to J.D., a city of Lawrence employee, and mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Julie.
She didn't always feel strongly about native tradition. Enrolling at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence awakened her spirituality.
"Haskell instilled in me a value system I set aside a long time ago," Stites said.
The dress she intends to wear at commencement is the finest she owns.
It will be worn on one of the finest days of her life.
"I'm the first of my generation in the family to graduate from college," Stites said. "What am I supposed to do? Submit again? I think I've given enough. I want my daughter to be proud she's Indian."
- Should regalia that honors a nationality or culture be allowed at Kansas University's commencement? Answer the J-W Access question on page 2A.