Awarding eagle feathers at graduation ceremony stirs controversy

NEWPORT, Ore. – A Newport school district has ended a long-standing eagle feather graduation ceremony it once held for Native high school seniors after learning that federal law prohibits it.

But at least one family contends the Lincoln County School District “went beyond how the law reads” in deciding to deny the feathers to students who were not enrolled in federally recognized tribes and then halting the ceremony altogether because it allegedly constituted the use of federal school funds for religious purposes.

“At the end of graduation you will receive an eagle feather because you’ve earned it,” Cindy George-Kenney, a member of a district Indian Education parent committee, said students were told before the practice was dropped. She has filed grievances with civil rights organizations, the Department of Justice, and the National Congress of American Indians, among others.

“I work with them as they walk down the path of education and I will be there at the end to gift them with an eagle feather to help them with their spiritual journey,” was the philosophy of Juanita Whitebear, a long-time Indian education specialist for the school district, who termed the ceremony’s demise and its possible replacement “a really delicate situation.”

George-Kenney’s daughter, Angelica, who will be a freshman, said, “Obviously, you’re Native American” to be in the Indian Education program, but then “you’re not Native enough to get a feather – it just doesn’t seem right.”

Three provisions of federal law underlie the controversy.

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, eligibility for the Title VII Indian Education program requires only that a person or their parent or grandparent belong to an Indian tribe or band, including state recognized tribes, be recognized by the secretary of the Interior as an Indian, or satisfy another broad requirement.

More narrowly, however, “schools may request eagle feathers to present at graduation to Native American students who are enrolled members of federally recognized tribes,” according to Fish and Wildlife Service regulations that advise application at the start of the school year by “a representative from the school who is an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe.”

Finally, a section of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which the FWS regulations implement, is cited by critics of the ceremony’s cancellation. It says eagle parts or feathers are not transferable except when “handed down from generation to generation or from one Indian to another in accordance with tribal or religious customs.”

That passage, coupled with the ceremony’s long history in local schools, has fueled the indignation of those who resent the ceremony’s cancellation.

Tom Rinearson, district superintendent, talked with the Department of Justice about the ceremony and was told “it was illegal.” The ceremony could also be considered a religious event and the school cannot sponsor it on those terms either, he said.

The Indian Education parents committee rejected an option used elsewhere of conducting the ceremony using hawk or other feathers, he said.

Whitebear doesn’t want to gift one Indian Education student with an eagle feather and another with a hawk or turkey feather because “we already have these (divisive) issues as Indian people.”

George-Kenney said the eagle feather ceremony was last held in 2008, even though Title VII is to “support cultural activities.” A new Indian Education employee who raised the eagle feather issue showed a “lack of respect,” and it “should have been done in a respectful way.”

Angelica, 14, and her sister, Laura, 11, are one-fourth Cherokee and could be enrolled, “but Angelica refuses,” George-Kenney said, noting “she is very active in Native rights.”

“I know who I am. … people who know me know I am a Native American person.”

At least two students – one of them an honor student with ancestry in a local tribal nation – could not receive eagle feathers at graduation because they were not enrolled, she said.

If a Title VII graduation ceremony were to award eagle feathers only to federally enrolled Native students, “It would feel like they were more important than I was,” she said.

Whitebear said the eagle feather ceremony began in 1985 “because the graduation rate among Native children was really low,” so parents and others “did it as an honoring, so once they completed high school they would honor them with one of the highest gifts.”

The ceremony may be cultural, not religious, and conducted by the community, not the school or the Title VII parents committee, but it needs to be “brought out in the open,” Whitebear said. She is not afraid to speak out for the children or parents who, for whatever reason, feel constrained.

“Change needs to happen for our children.”

Rinearson said the outcome would affect 40 to 50 students in the Indian Education program. He feels the conferring of feathers “was a great experience for the kids – I would hope the community will pick that up.”