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School Policy in the 21st Century

Every year during graduation season the issue of wearing eagle feathers comes up among Native students and their schools. The argument against Native high school and college graduates not being able to adorn their caps with a sacred symbol that is synonymous with accomplishment and a rite of passage goes something like this – it’s against school policy!

Here’s an idea: change the policy. All across the country young Native people are being denied the opportunity to wear their eagle feathers with pride as they celebrate one of life’s biggest moments. Schools around the country could take a page from Albuquerque Public Schools when it comes to changing policy.

Earlier this year APS created the Office of Equity and Engagement and together with the Indian Education Department made a major change in district policy to allow Native students to show their cultural roots, their pride and identity by wearing not only eagle feathers on their caps but their Native dress as they walk across the stage to receive their diploma. What a concept.

But that’s the exception rather than the rule. Story after story is coming out that Native students in Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Washington, California – all over the U.S. – are being denied their requests to attach an eagle feather to their caps or gowns while participating in graduation ceremonies. One particular story about a young woman in Oklahoma being denied her intention to wear an eagle feather on her cap led to her contacting the Native American Rights Fund for help.

In a letter to Caney Valley School District Superintendent Rick Peters, on behalf of Delaware tribal member Hayden Griffith, NARF wrote: “Ms. Griffith indicated to us that she wishes to wear the feather for religious and spiritual reasons in order to honor her Native American heritage.

“First, the School District should consider the important religious aspects of eagle feathers…and the legal protections afforded to religious practices. They are honored with great care and shown the deepest respect. These feathers represent honesty, truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power, and freedom. Native Americans believe that as eagles roam the sky, they have a special connection with God. Native Americans hold eagle feathers sacred and equate them to the cross or the Bible in western religion.”

NARF went on to explain, “Oklahoma’s religious freedom statute prohibits a government entity from curtailing a religiously motivated practice…the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that statutory protection of religious practice is expansive and that government interference with religious conduct is subject to the highest level of judicial scrutiny. Moreover, such religious freedom statutes apply to theperson and broadly formulated, generalized fears about what could happen if others are given similar accommodations are insufficient.

“The Caney Valley School District should be cognizant of this very recent, powerful Supreme Court precedent when considering Ms. Griffith’s request.” Very well said, and it sounds like a threat of a lawsuit based partially on the Native American Religious Freedom Act. Way to go NARF. (NARF filed a lawsuit and the first hearing was yesterday. The graduation is scheduled for Thursday).

Superintendent Peters was quoted, “This (graduation) is not a tribal ceremony. We’ve given (her) 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.”

A student from the Pit River Tribe in California was told by his high school that they will absolutely not allow him to wear a choker or an eagle feather on his tassel because it will “open the flood gates to Africans wearing dashikis and Mexicans wearing shawls.”

What would happen if a Christian student wanted to hang a cross from his or her cap? What about a Jewish student displaying the Star of David? What is so wrong with that – isn’t this America? Some argue what if a student wanted to wear a swastika on their cap? It is actually originally a religious symbol, but really?

So this is not an issue of “decorating” your graduation cap with anything you want. It’s an issue of religious freedom in the good ol’ USA. Alan Fletcher, a legislator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, explained the issue in this fashion, “The Eagle Feather is not a decoration but a highly sacred instrument of prayer.” It’s time to change school policy. It’s time to join the 21st Century.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The court ruled against the young lady in this column from Oklahoma, but similar cases in Nebraska and Tennessee received favorable rulings.

Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.