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Fighting for Native Student’s Right to Wear Eagle Feather at Graduation

A Native American student is suing his school—with the help of the ACLU—to wear his eagle feather at graduation in California on June 4.

Editor’s Note: Clovis Unified School District and attorneys for Christian Titman reached an agreement June 2, which will allow him to wear the eagle feather at graduation. “The district’s refusal to allow a small symbol of religious expression during the graduation ceremony is a misunderstanding of both the spirit and the letter of the law,” Novella Coleman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, argued. “The implication that an eagle feather with religious significance is unacceptable or disruptive signals a deep disrespect from the district.”

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gregory Frizzell said the school’s policy prohibiting decorations on graduation caps does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s right to exercise religious freedom because it was applied generally and was religion-neutral, reports the Associated Press.

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On June 1, a Native American graduating senior at Clovis High School in California, filed a notice of intent to file an emergency lawsuit to challenge the school district’s refusal to allow him to wear and display a small eagle feather during the graduation ceremony on Thursday, June 4.

The student will only be able to wear the eagle feather, an item with religious and cultural significance, on his graduation cap during the ceremony if a court intervenes. The notice asks for an emergency court hearing on Tuesday, June 2, to decide the issue.

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Read the full press release from the American Civil Liberties Union, here. I expressed my support for Christian Titman to members of the school board and political leaders in the letter that follows.

I am writing today to protest your decision to violate the Civil Rights (American Indian Civil Rights Act) of Christian Titman. His right to wear eagle feathers is guaranteed under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (American Indian Religious Freedom Act). He also has the right to wear his feathers as it is considered to be a mark of academic distinction much like gold National Honor Society cords.

Graduation is a significant event in the community. The traditional gifting of a feather is an honor that is shared with the public to mark the importance of the achievement of the recipient. If you would allow a Sikh student to wear a turban or a Christian student to wear a cross then you must not be hypocritical in denying Native Americans the right to wear the symbols of their culture that mark this success.

 It is your duty to support and exalt your students, not make punitive decisions that negatively impact their self-esteem. Celebrate this milestone reached in cooperation with your district by confirming the importance of this accomplishment by allowing Mr. Titman to respectfully adorn his mortarboard to note his achievement. I urge the Clovis Unified School District to protect the inherent legal and moral rights of your American Indian students.

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André Cramblit is a Karuk Tribal Member from the Klamath and Salmon rivers in northwest California and the Operations Director of the Northern California Indian Development Council. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Kyle in Arcata, California.