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Feather at Graduation or Lawsuit? That’s Up to Caney Valley School District

After an Oklahoma School District told Native senior Hayden Layne Griffith that she couldn’t wear an eagle feather in her graduation cap during this month’s ceremony, the school district received a letter requesting she be permitted to wear her “eagle feather at graduation as a religious expression in accordance with her Native American heritage.”

The letter, which is addressed to Superintendent Rick Peters of the Caney Valley School District and Sue Woods of the Caney Valley Schools Board of Education, came from a Tulsa, Oklahoma Law Firm, Conner and Winters, along with the Native American Rights Fund, Oklahoma Indian Legal Services, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.

The letter further states:

“Ms. Griffith’s request implicates her rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to freely exercise her religion and to free speech and expression. In light of the fact that the graduation ceremony is a week from tomorrow, it is our sincere desire that Ms. Griffith’s request be voluntarily granted and that the decision be made by 12:00 p.m. on Friday, May 15, 2015. However, if Ms. Griffith’s request is denied, or if no decision is made by that time, we will have no choice but to seek relief through the judicial system by filing a lawsuit and seeking immediate injunctive relief to prevent the school from infringing on Ms. Griffith’s free exercise rights.”

Hayden’s mother, Lisa Griffith, a teacher herself, said the situation first heated up when she posted a photo of her 18-year-old daughter wearing the feather on her graduation cap on Facebook. Griffith said school officials told the family Hayden would not be able to wear the feather at graduation.

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When Lisa Griffith posted this photo of her daughter Hayden wearing an eagle feather on her graduation cap, school officials told her she would not be allowed to wear the feather on her graduation cap.

Griffith is frustrated, because her daughter, a member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, should be allowed to show pride for her Native culture. Hayden is disappointed. “I am not happy. I think they are just fixed in what they are saying and are not going to let this happen.”

She also says she wants to wear the feather no matter what. “I am set on wearing it whether they say yes or no. People are asking, ‘what are they going to do? Will they let you or stop you?”

In an interview with CBS News in Oklahoma, Caney Valley School District Superintendent Rick Peters said Hayden’s request violates 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,” Peters told CBS.

Griffith is frustrated, angry and emotional, which can be seen in the CBS report, that the school district is being so stubborn. She signed up to address school district officials and was only given two minutes.

Hayden says Superintendent Peters is set in his ways. “The way he talks, he seems close-minded about it and he’s already made up his mind and nothing that you say or anyone says is going to change what he thinks.”

Griffith also says that since the Facebook post, she has been targeted as an unfit mother and as someone who does not support the community. She also says her daughter has been targeted because she has lightened her hair and does not look like the stereotypical television Indian.

“I am a huge supporter of this community, and my mother and I were born here. Hayden has been going to powwows since she was a baby. We are very involved in our community,” Griffith said.

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Hayden’s mother says she has been going to powwows since she was a newborn.

She also said this situation is odd in a school that has a 46 percent Native student population, and in a district that receives significant funding from the Cherokee Nation.

“This school district received about $17,000 in March just from Cherokee license tag proceeds, not to mention so much more from other ways. They will take the money from Native people, but students can’t display their culture.”

In a press release issued by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma from March 2015, the Cherokee Nation awarded checks totaling a record $4 million to 107 school districts due to the expansion of Cherokee Nation car tag sales statewide, though several school districts received various amounts, the Washington County School District, of which Caney Valley is a part, received a total of $109,572.

Hayden’s grandmother and Assistant Chief of the Delaware Tribe of Indians Bonnie Jo Griffith told ICTMN that in her recent meeting with Superintendent Peters, he showed a lack of respect for the funds his district receives from Native entities.

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Hayden’s mother says her daughter has always followed the rules and was even recently awarded a softball scholarship—she is signing it here.

“I asked why my granddaughter could not wear her feather when the school district is receiving funding from Native sources,” Bonnie Jo said. “He said, ‘the BIA has free buckets of money to give, why shouldn’t we take it?’ He said that the feather and funding issues were not the same things.”

Bonnie Jo was a Caney Valley School Board member 30 years ago, and was even president. She said she would have said yes if a student asked to wear an eagle feather back then. "The graduation is for the students, not us," she said.

Tim Hudson, who works in the Communications Department of the Delaware Indians, said the school district should allow Hayden to represent her culture on graduation day. “Literally, Natives were displaying feathers before there were even schools here,” he said.

“I take offense to this,” Hayden said. “They get to do what they want to do, but I can’t do something that shows my honor.”

Though ICTMN reached out to the Caney Valley School District, officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Follow correspondent Vincent Schilling on Twitter.