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Graduation incident leaves family members anguished

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Blackfeet tribal members Craig and Rene'e Wellman wince
when they recall their daughter's graduation at David Douglas High School
June 8. "One of the secretaries ripped my daughter's beaded eagle plume
from her graduation cap," said Craig Wellman. "She yanked so hard she
pulled my daughter's hair out with it! She broke the quills, completely
destroying it."

Not so, said David Douglas Principal Randy Hutchinson. "Pat Alderson, the
athletic secretary that confronted Kelsey Wellman, said that the student
tipped her head toward her, and she thought it meant to take the ribbon or
whatever it was off. When Kelsey pulled back, Pat was holding onto the
feathers after they pulled out of the piece of metal."

Hutchinson also pointed out that "we have a standing tradition of not
letting individual students stand out in the crowd by putting things on
their hats, and we spent considerable time explaining that to students in
graduation practice, as we do every year.

"It's an unfortunate set of circumstances, and we didn't want to put anyone
in any situation. We were just following our own policies that we've had
for the 10 years that I've been here. Also I heard from the secretary that
teachers had told Kelsey to remove whatever it was from her hat, and she
said, 'Well, let the administration tell me.'

"I'm not even sure that anyone in that line knew Kelsey was Native
American. Also, to my knowledge she was the only person who attempted to
walk across the stage with her cap decorated," Hutchinson continued.

"I told all the students in practice that if they had family things to take
care of, we urge that it be before or after the ceremony. And I added that
if anyone had questions about what might be appropriate to see us. I did
have one student see me about wearing a traditional Irish kilt to honor his
heritage, and I said as long as it was under his gown it would be fine.
That way his family could still get pictures before the ceremonies. To my
knowledge, though, Kelsey did not contact anyone."

The Wellmans counter that their son graduated from David Douglas without
incident last year, and his cap was decorated the same way as Kelsey's -
the edge beaded by Rene'e Wellman in school colors and an eagle plume
hanging alongside the tassel. Further, the family underscore the idea that
their daughter's four eagle feathers were given to her by her uncle when
she was five and, in honor of her graduation ceremony, were bound securely
and beaded into a full plume by her brother-in-law.

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"If an eagle feather falls to the ground, it's considered a sign of
disrespect and certain things have to be done to make it right," Craig
Wellman said. "So I know those feathers were tied tightly and could never
have come out that easily. Also, the lady wouldn't even give them back to
my daughter so I had to go down and get them. Several teachers that led me
to her kept apologizing and asked what they could do to make this right,
but the lady was on her high horse with an angry hateful look in her eye as
she set me straight about the school policy."

For his part, Hutchinson said that Craig Wellman "contacted security and
went to get whatever it was that was removed. He confronted Alderman and
said, 'How far do you want me to take this? This is unacceptable, and I'm a
member of the tribal council, and you're not going to hear the end of
this.'"

According to the principal, the secretary also "assured Mr. Wellman it
wasn't the intent to damage the item."

Kelsey explained that she knew there was a school code but the examples she
remembers hearing were frivolous things like writing "I made it" on the
mortarboards. And since her brother had walked with his cap, she didn't
think anything about it.

Hutchinson wondered why the Wellmans didn't contact him. "If it was a huge
issue, I would have expected a phone call from the family. Or the young
lady could have come by and had a conversation with me. My understanding is
that the faculty apologized profusely to the parents." The principal was
quick to add that he is accustomed to working with members of other
cultures.

"Cultural awareness is huge at our school because we have such a diversity
issue at our school. We have 38 languages and so [we] understand the issue
of diversity that plagues society. But if people don't make you aware of
something until the last second ... gosh, I don't know what we can do."

Craig Wellman has not closed the door to further dialogue with David
Douglas officials.

"An apology to my daughter would work. We need to build an awareness that
it's OK to celebrate who you are. We shouldn't all have to be submerged
under some cookie cutter mold. Who's to say whose society should win out?"