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Lumbee student fights to wear feathers to graduation

RALEIGH, N.C. - Corey Bird, 18, always anticipated that graduating from high school would be a big deal. But he never expected that wanting to wear feathers of spiritual significance to his tribe and family on his graduation regalia would cause the kind of uproar he's experienced in recent days.

At a senior meeting May 20 at Purnell Swett High School, Bird asked his principal, Antonio Wilkins, if he could wear two medium-sized eagle feathers on his cap on graduation day. In anticipation of the big event, scheduled for June 13, a family friend has already beaded the feathers' quills with Bird's school colors, navy blue and silver.

Wilkins initially told Bird that he could wear the feathers on his gown, but not on his cap. Since that time, Robeson County Schools Superintendent Johnny Hunt has stated that school policy says no embellishments may be worn by graduates on their caps or gowns. A student who breaks the rules can be removed from the graduation line and not allowed to walk across the stage.

Wilkins and Hunt - both of Native descent - did not respond to requests for comment by press time, but Bird said there has been a general concern from school administrators about gang paraphernalia being worn at graduation. The administrators seem to believe Bird could set a precedent for other students to wear gang colors if he were allowed to wear the feathers to graduation.

But Bird, an honor student and top athlete at his school, has never been involved in any gang activity, nor has he ever been known as a rabble-rouser. He is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and has Lumbee heritage. He plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Pembroke this fall to study architecture.

Bird said he simply wants to wear the feathers in a spiritual context in honor of his late grandfather and his mother, who passed away in a car accident when he was 7. Many tribes attach deep cultural and religious significance to eagle feathers, and possessing them is often seen as a high honor.

''When I wear the feathers and walk across that stage, I will remember my family and how they would like to be there with me,'' Bird said. ''I will honor them by wearing the feathers.''

He added, ''The feathers have nothing to do with gang-related stuff. Besides, I think gang colors can be restricted without restricting feathers and other religious and heritage items.''

The Lumbee Tribe has already passed a resolution supporting Bird's desire, with council member Ray Littleturtle calling the school's stance a ''disgrace.'' Many of Bird's classmates have also been supportive, and a large percentage of the student body at his school is Native.

Legal experts with both the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Native American Rights Fund have expressed interest in advocating for what they believe is Bird's legal right to wear the feathers.

Katy Parker, legal director for the state's ACLU, believes Bird can make a case to wear the feathers for religious reasons. She is in the process of reaching out to his family to talk about their options.

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''Under the First Amendment, he has a free exercise right to wear his feathers. The parent also has a fundamental right to parent. Because those two things are combined in this case, Corey's argument is sort of strengthened.''

She said the federal court case Hicks v. Halifax County Board of Education, in the Eastern District of North Carolina, could apply to Bird's situation. In that case, a 9-year-old public school student faced suspension for not wearing a school uniform. However, the court found the student didn't have to because doing so conflicted with his family's religious beliefs.

''The school has to make an exception, just like they would make an exception for a Jewish student to wear a yarmulke. And if you allow an exception for a sincerely held religious belief, that doesn't mean the school has to allow an exception for every student who wants to wear, say, a baseball cap.''

Bird's father, Samuel, said the family is currently considering pursuing legal action, but is waiting to see if the publicity causes school officials to change their minds.

''It just makes me angry,'' he said. ''This community has always been culture-oriented. Is this what we want to be teaching our kids?''

Many Native students have worn feathers on their graduation outfits in the past, according to Samuel. The only difference is that they never asked permission.

''My son did what he's always been taught to do - to ask - and then he ends up getting punished for it.''

Bird said he doesn't regret asking permission.

''I'd rather ask, just to be on the safe side, and do the right thing.''

School records indicate that there are more than 10,000 American Indian students enrolled in Robeson County public schools. Bird's cousin, Olivia, who will graduate in June as well, is also battling for the right to wear three small eagle feathers on her graduation outfit.

Both students fear being pulled out of the graduation line if they wear the feathers.

Whether or not Bird wins the right to wear the feathers, he is going forward with his plans.

''It means that much to me.''