In 2011, Mykillie Driver, Assiniboine/Lakota Sioux, a student at Reynold’s High School was looking forward to wearing an eagle feather in her graduation cap. She consulted with elders and worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure she had adequate documentation.
When she checked with the school, the vice principal said wearing adornments of any kind was against school policy. When she asked for a copy of the policy, Driver said she was met with hostility. Frustrated with a lack of real answers, Driver got to work writing to a slew of officials to include administration at the Reynolds School District, her school board, the Oregon Department of Education, both of the mayors’ offices in Troutdale and Portland, the Native American Rights Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
After significant due-diligence Driver was invited to her school’s superintendent’s office. After meeting with a representative and making her case, her superintendent emailed her stating she had permission.
According to Stephen Pevar, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program, in a 2011 article in Indian Country Today, “A student wearing an eagle feather in her graduation cap is a First Amendment issue. But if she had had to take it to court she might not have won.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court decided 15 years ago that First Amendment claims would be analyzed on a rational basis rather than an interest path, which means the government only needs some legitimate reason to say no. The school would have to have a legitimate reason to require that students not wear anything in their caps. While the student has a right to have an eagle feather, school officials also have certain rights, including forbidding adornments.”
Indian Country Today reported in 2013 that an Escambia Academy High School student that wore an eagle feather on her graduation cap during her high school graduation would be denied her diploma. Additionally, an according to a contract issued by the school, 17-year-old Chelsey Ramer, Poarch Creek Band of Indians, would not receive her diploma or high school transcripts until she paid a $1,000 fine imposed by the school for wearing the feather.
According to the contract issued by Escambia Academy, a private school in Atmore, Alabama:
“Escambia Academy students and staff shall not wear extraneous items during graduation exercises unless approved by the administration of Escambia Academy. The only acceptable additional items are those honoring Valedictorian, Salutatorian, Beta Club members and senior presidents of school-sponsored organizations.”
The school later changed their decision after a vast public outcry and international attention.
Staff members at the school told Indian Country Today that their offices had been overwhelmed with phone calls from all over the nation.
The message from the school prior to the reversal was clear, some organizations could have additional adornments added to their graduation wear, but Native students could not have regalia.
Oklahoma and California
In 2015, An Oklahoma School District that benefitted from Cherokee Nation funding told graduating senior and Native student Hayden Layne Griffith of the Delaware Tribe of Indians that she would not be able to wear an eagle feather in her graduation cap during her high school graduation ceremony.
In an interview with CBS News in Oklahoma, the Caney Valley School District Superintendent, Rick Peters, said the school denied the request because it would violate school policy. “This is not a tribal ceremony. We've given them options and it's a slippery slope. Basically, we couldn't deny other students from placing on their cap anything they would like on their cap," Peters told CBS. “We are concerned that if we grant this student’s request, then we have opened the door to virtually any other decoration."
Though the school district receives significant funding from the Cherokee Nation and over 46 percent of the students are Native, the Magistrate ruled against Griffith.
She graduated high school on May 21 … without wearing the feather.
However that same year, a Native student Christian Titman wore a feather at his graduation in Clovis, California. The school dropped its opposition because they faced a civil rights lawsuit that cited religious freedom as part of the argument.
Maryland and Oklahoma
In 2016, two Native American students, Liseanne Yazzie, Navajo, from Sapulpa, Oklahoma and Dylan McCabe, Navajo, from Waldorf Maryland were facing similar dilemmas. Neither of the students were being permitted to wear traditional mocassins to there graduations because they showed below the graduation gown.
For McCabe, who filed a petition on change.org and received over 6,500 signatures, she was eventually granted permission to wear her traditional footwear. According to a school spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson cited in the Maryland Independent, “The assistant superintendent felt that Dylan was very strong in her religion and beliefs and had shown evidence of a strong association throughout her life to her Native American culture and beliefs.”
For Yazzie, the school also reversed its initial decision. The school's statement posted in KJRH stated, “After careful consideration and reflection Sapulpa Public Schools has decided to make an exception to previous restrictions regarding footwear. Native American clothing, especially ceremonial attire (as in this case), can and should be considered appropriate for inclusion in our graduation exercises.” Yazzie was able to celebrate her culture.
North Dakota State Rep. Ruth Buffalo, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, a Democrat from Fargo, championed legislation to recognize traditional regalia in House Bill 1335. The bill was unanimously passed in the Senate and signed by the Governor on March 20.
As described by Buffalo in her opinion-editorial in Indian Country Today, titled "Native Students should not have to worry whether they will be allowed to wear eagle feathers and plumes during school-sanctioned events," Buffalo described the bill as well as the importance of it to Native students and Native communities as a whole.
“Every year, Native high school graduates seek to express their academic achievement and religious beliefs by wearing eagle feathers as a part of their graduation ceremonies," she wrote. "Although most high schools recognize the academic and sacred importance associated with wearing eagle feathers at graduation, there still are a few schools and districts that do not allow this tradition.”
“Rather than have each student navigate through a system of advocacy which causes anxiety and stress to our young people, we want to be proactive by passing this bill to where all schools cannot prohibit the wearing of eagle feathers and eagle plumes during graduation ceremonies.”
“There is great importance attached to sacred items, but as a parent with a public health background, I know and understand that the protective factors of embracing our Indigenous culture and identity are essential to our survival.”
A most recent victory - Tvli Birdshead
In April of this year, Tvli Birdshead, Chickasaw, sought to wear his Chickasaw Nation honor cord and an eagle feather to his school graduation. But was told he would not be able to wear them.
After appealing to school officials at the Latta High School in Oklahoma, Birdshead would not only be able to wear his feather and Chickasaw Nation cord, but the school would draft a policy to give permission to Native students moving forward.
A growing trend or a confusing inconsistency?
A year ago Tigran Andrew wore a sealskin cap with his school-issued green gown in Anchorage. His mother, Jacqueline Morris, told the Anchorage Daily News that she had the cap made for her son, who is Yup’ik and Inupiaq, so he could carry his culture and honor his ancestors as he received his diploma. A school principal had given permission, but another staff member later asked him to take it off. It took another phone call to the principal before the ceremony could continue.
Morris told the Anchorage Daily News: It was an uphill battle all the way."
This year the Anchorage School District, led by the Native American Advisory Committee, set up a new policy that recognizes regalia. School district administrators approved the new regulation last month.
“I think we have one of the most diverse school districts in the country and really, for us, I think it’s important to recognize that,”Kersten Johnson-Struempler, told The Anchorage Daily News. She is the district’s senior director of secondary education. “I’m excited to see how students express themselves at graduation this year.”
Arguably as activism on social media grows and the public is more aware of the actions of schools and students, and state legislators are stepping up to reclaim and assert Native rights, students are being able to maintain their indigeneity.
In March of this year, Native students in Tuscon saw the school board vote unanimously in support of wearing tribal adornments at graduation without prior approval.
“It’s our right as native, Indigenous people,” said Madeline Jeans to Tuscon.com. Jeans is a Pueblo High School graduate from 2017 who worked for years to get the approval to wear Native items. “It’s our way of life,” she said.
In September of 2017, Native students in Reno were also given the right to wear eagle feathers at the graduation in the wake of a public statement by the office of Washoe County Deputy School Superintendent Kristen McNeill who was cited in First Nations Focus as saying “that the right to wear eagle feathers is guaranteed under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.”
In 2017 in Montana, a new law, SB 319, signed by Governor Steve Bullock, prohibited schools from creating policies that bar Native students from wearing culturally significant items at public events.
As Indian Country Today previously reported on SB 319, “In this day and age, this is still a surprise,” Matthew Campbell, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, told the Billings Gazette. “Part of it is the lack of understanding about how important these items are.”
Five years ago, Aspen Many Hides, Blackfeet/Turtle Mountain Chippewa, was forced by her Polson High School principal to remove beads from her cap or she couldn’t walk.”
“Minutes before we were walking, one of my friends’ moms was ripping out the beadwork,” Many Hides said. “I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t a student be able to represent who they are at graduation?’”
There is no national resolution yet
AZCentral reported on Thursday that LaRissa Waln, Sioux, a student at Valley Vista High School, was turned away from her graduation ceremony because she was wearing a beaded graduation cap. Tate' Walker posted Waln's emotional appeal on Twitter.
To add to the further inconsistency of decisions on types of regalia, in 2015, Native American Student Association princess Leticia Gonzales, Bishop Paiute Tribe, was told she could wear an eagle feather, but not a beaded cap.
“I don’t think this is hurting anyone and my grandmother made this out of love, respect and honor. We didn’t think there would be an issue as we got this cap two months ago and we had to buy it. The school allows us to attach feathers to our tassels.”
Though the school said they would consider solutions, Gonzalez didn’t follow up with Indian Country Today after the initial interview.
Native American Right Fund has a graduates’ back and a website with great resources
On the Native American Right Fund website, on a page titled Wearing Eagle Feathers at Graduation, Attorney’s Matthew L. Campbell and David L. Gover assert the organizations’ history and advocacy for Native students who wish to represent their Native heritage during graduations:
NARF has a long history of assisting students who are prohibited from wearing eagle feathers at graduation ceremonies due to narrow graduation dress codes. We continue to advocate for these graduates so they can celebrate their great successes without sacrificing their tribal identity. Below are resources for students and advocates looking to change narrow graduation dress codes.
On this page, students and parent’s can find a great list of resources such as downloadable brochures such as Wearing Eagle Feathers at Graduation: A Guide for Students and Families and Wearing Eagle Feathers at Graduation: Information for Schools.
Several state legislative efforts are listed as well as a letter written by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter advocating for the rights of Native students.
Based on the history of petitioning school boards, officials, superintendents as well as state legislators, there appears to be an arguably stronger trend in approval by legislators less closely tied to school rules, some of these rules are unwritten as demonstrated by the previously illustrated points above, and could also arguably be cited as personal in nature.
One of the most successful ventures was the legislation introduced by Rep. Buffalo, whose legislation was approved unanimously by the Senate.
Graduation regalia is a source of pride
On May 9, Twitter account @Charelle_Belle asked her followers to share photos of students graduating wearing regalia. She wrote, "Indigenous Scholars everywhere are denied the RIGHT to wear their traditional/cultural regalia. Seeing other indigenous students graduating in their respective regalia is empowering. Let’s start a thread for this! Drop your pics from graduation in your regalia. I’ll go first."
The response was remarkable and uplifting, demonstrating the pride and cultural importance of representing during graduation.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling