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Strength of spirit prevails

Student wears eagle feathers to graduation

RALEIGH, N.C. - For most students, getting through classes is usually the hardest part of the big walk toward graduation. But for Corey Bird, 18, the graduation walk itself became one of the biggest obstacles.

As Indian Country Today recently reported, Bird was told at a senior meeting in May that he risked being pulled from the graduation line June 13 if he went forward with his plans to wear two medium-sized eagle feathers on his cap and gown.

Bird had explained to Purnell Swett High School Principal Antonio Wilkins that he wanted to wear the feathers to his graduation in honor of his late grandfather and his mother, who passed away in a car accident when he was 7. An enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota with Lumbee heritage, the feathers were intended to serve as a Native-centric spiritual remembrance of his loved ones.

But administrators from Robeson County Schools said Bird's desire ran contrary to school policy that states no embellishments may be worn by graduates on their caps or gowns. There had also been heightened concern of late about gang paraphernalia being worn at graduation, and administrators seemed to believe Bird could set a precedent for other students to wear gang colors if he were allowed to wear the feathers to graduation.

An honor student and top athlete at his school, Bird had never been involved in any gang activity, nor had he been known to be much of a trouble maker. But he did choose to make waves in this instance.

After news seeped out about the administrators' decision, the American Civil Liberties Union contacted Bird and his family to let them know that there was legal precedent for him to be allowed to wear the religiously and culturally significant feathers.

Bird ultimately sought counsel with Katy Parker, legal director for the state's ACLU, who argued to school administrators that he should be allowed to wear the feathers under the First Amendment and for religious reasons, as established by previous legal decisions.

After many hours of talk about the case, the Robeson County school board ultimately decided to take no action. Instead, they allowed their lawyers to work out an informal agreement with the ACLU on Bird's behalf just two days before graduation.

The agreement allowed Bird to wear the feathers attached to an honor's sash around the neck of his gown on graduation day. The feathers' quills were hand-beaded with his school colors, navy blue and silver.

While happy with the end result, Bird and his father, Samuel, are a bit disappointed that the school board did not take official action to alter school policy to account for similar situations that may arise for Native students in the future.

''The school board just wouldn't vote on it,'' Samuel Bird reflected. ''I wish they would have made a decision that would have changed the overall policy. I guess they were sort of protecting themselves.''

While Samuel Bird was discouraged by the board's lack of action, he said he is proud of his son for taking a stand - not to mention for graduating with honors.

''Corey stood up for something that he believed in,'' he said. ''And it really turned out to be one of the proudest days of my life.''

It was also quite a pride-filled day for Bird himself, who said he felt like his mother and grandfather were watching down over him as he crossed the stage.

''I just felt really good inside,'' Bird said. ''My mother and my grandfather were there for me spiritually.''

While Bird's plight is over, the ACLU now plans to push the school board to revise its policy to address students who wish to wear ceremonial feathers in the future. The organization has even suggested that Bird participate in those discussions.

Bird, who plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Pembroke this fall, said he's ready and willing.

''If you stand up for what you believe in, sometimes you can make good things happen.''