Montana Leader Defends Bolo Ties

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 11, 2005

A Charles County high school's decision to deny a diploma to a senior who wore a bolo tie to graduation didn't offend just the student and his family. Montana's governor is mighty annoyed, too.

"To have some high school say that a bolo tie is not a tie is an outrage," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), who called The Washington Post yesterday after reading an article about 17-year-old Thomas Benya.

"In Montana and anyplace in Indian country, a bolo tie is dressed up," he said. "A tie is a tie."

Schweitzer, who has a collection of more than 30 string ties, called to encourage Benya yesterday and is sending him a Montana state bolo.

The Waldorf teenager first wore his black, braided tie to a graduation rehearsal Tuesday as a symbol of his Native American roots. His paternal grandmother's father and grandfather were born on a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma.

But the principal at Maurice J. McDonough High School said the skinny tie with a silver clasp did not meet the school's definition of a tie. Benya wore it anyway. When he tried to collect his diploma after the ceremony Wednesday, he was told to schedule a conference with school administrators. Benya's parents said they are waiting for an apology from the school system.

The question of whether a bolo tie is a tie has been tricky to navigate, even in Western states where they are common attire. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), for instance, often wears one during television interviews. But in that state's legislature, the coat-and-tie requirement allows string ties on the floor of the Senate but not the House.

Former Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, an American Indian and a jewelry designer, is perhaps one of the most well known bolo boosters. He said yesterday he remembers asking then-House Speaker Jim Wright for permission to break with tradition in 1987.

"It was never contested. No one ever complained," Campbell said.

"It seems to me that if the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate give latitude to members of the highest body in the land, a high school shouldn't be so uptight to deny a kid his cultural right to wear a different type of neckwear," he said.

The school system might reconsider the bolo's status for the next graduation.

"Do I think the schools might take a look at it next year? Sure. Will they change it? I don't know," system spokeswoman Katie O'Malley-Simpson said. "The incident will give principals something to think about."

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