Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The disagreement over allowing Native students to wear eagle feathers and regalia during high school graduation rears its contentious head once again this year.

Sheila Lamb was shocked to hear that her daughter, a senior at Cloquet High school in Minnesota, would first need to gain approval from school administrators before being allowed to wear her eagle feather and appliquéd sash during the upcoming graduation ceremony.

Her daughter, Maya Fairbanks, 18 is a citizen of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“When I called the school, I was told that she couldn’t wear her beaded sash and that her eagle feather would first have to be measured to ensure everybody was uniform; no one has the right to dictate the type of size of a feather that was gifted to someone to honor them,” said Lamb who is citizen of the Ojibwe tribe and descendent of Cherokee tribe. 

“I found that so upsetting. The first thing I thought of was the rigid rules in the old Indian boarding schools; it felt like another form of racial and cultural erasure,” she said.

Lamb contacted school and district officials as well as a local leader of the American Civil Liberties Union about her concerns.

Steve Battaglia, assistant principal of Cloquet school later called Lamb and assured her that there was no such policy; Maya is welcome to wear her eagle feather and sash to graduation.

Maya Fairbanks in her cap and eagle feather she is wearing for graduation at Cloquet high school. (Photo courtesy Sheila Lamb)

“I think some lines of communication got crossed; we fully support our Native students wearing eagle feathers and regalia at graduation,” Battaglia told Indian Country Today.

Battaglia noted, however, that there are no formal guidelines at the school about this issue.

Although it all worked out in the end for her family, Fairbanks remains concerned about the school’s focus on what she described as a “cookie cutter mentality” that has a chilling effect on racial and cultural diversity.

Some Native students continue to face push back from schools prohibiting the wearing of eagle feathers and traditional regalia at graduation ceremonies due to strict dress codes, according to Matthew Campbell, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, the largest legal nonprofit organization defending Native American rights.

“During this time of year, we get a lot of calls from Native students facing this issue,” said Campbell, a citizen of the Native Village of Gambell.

The organization advises and assists Native students in navigating such restrictions and maintains an informational website for students and parents.

“A big piece of what we do is education. Many high school districts are not aware of the importance of eagle feathers and regalia and how important they are to academic achievement in the Native community,” Campbell said.

Schools’ insistence on uniformity of dress as an expression of discipline places Native students in a position of having to choose between participating in graduation or following their religious or cultural traditions, according to Campbell.

In defending their policies, school leaders express concern that if they open the door to Native students wearing feathers or regalia, they will have to allow all students to decorate their caps and gowns in any way they choose.

“This is about so much more than decoration. Eagle feathers and regalia are culturally and spiritually significant for Native Americans; they are worn to honor the importance of an occasion and recognize students’ academic achievement,” he said.

“After we explain the significance of these items, we’ve seen that many districts allow students to go forward and wear their eagle feathers at graduation,” Campbell said.

Some districts, however, are stubborn according to Campbell.

The Native American Rights Fund and Rothstein Donatelli LLP is currently representing Larissa Waln and her family in a lawsuit against the Dysart School District in Surprise, Arizona. Waln is a citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota. In 2019, Waln, then a senior at Valley Vista High School, was refused entry to the school’s graduation ceremony when she showed up wearing a beaded graduation cap with an eagle plume attached. Dysart school district officials claimed that allowing Waln to participate would prove disruptive to other students in the commencement ceremony, according to court documents.

Larissa Waln holds the eagle plume and beaded cap that she wanted to wear during her graduation in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Waln)

The Waln family and the Native American Rights Fund allege that in denying her access to the ceremony, the school violated Larissa’s U.S. and Arizona state Constitutional rights to the exercise of religion and free speech as well as equal protection under the law.

“Larissa was devastated; they took away a once in a lifetime thing that every student dreams about,” said Bryan Waln, Larissa’s father.

School officials claimed that allowing Larissa to wear her eagle plume was against school policy.

“There’s not a single thing written in their rules against this,” Waln said.

Larissa received her plume from her paternal grandmother after it was blessed in ceremony.

According to Waln, high school graduates traditionally wear eagle feathers or plumes on his reservation of Rosebud in South Dakota.

The Waln family was especially shocked by the school’s action since in 2015 and 2017, two of their older children were allowed to wear eagle feathers at their graduation ceremonies at Desert Vista High School in the Tempe Union School District near Phoenix.

Arizona passed a bill in April prohibiting schools from barring students wearing eagle feathers or regalian at graduation ceremonies.

Administrators at Valley Vista High School did not respond to a phone call from Indian Country Today seeking comment about their plans for this year’s graduating class.

Dysart Unified School District’s director of communications and public relations told AZEDNEWS, “Dysart appreciates the desire of students to honor cultural traditions and does allow graduates to wear traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at a graduation ceremony along with a cap and gown.”

Hearing the news about Arizona’s new law, the Waln family is elated. “We are excited for the future of Native American students in Arizona who will not have to face the same injustice and inability to practice their culture and religion,” Bryan Waln said.

Several states have enacted legislation in recent years, usually forwarded by Native lawmakers, prohibiting schools from barring Native students from wearing feathers or regalia in graduation ceremonies.

Those states include North Dakota, California, South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.

Minnesota State Senator Mary Kunesh hopes that more states will follow Arizona’s lead. “For so long schools emphasized uniformity, hopefully we are moving away from that and celebrating our students’ diversity,” she said.

“It’s just one of those issues, like mascots, that never seem to go away,” said Kunesh of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Kunesh, a member of the Minnesota-Farmer-Labor Party, and other Native American lawmakers have repeatedly forwarded a bill amending Minnesota’s American Indian Education Act in the state legislature directing schools not to prohibit Native American students to wear eagle feathers or regalia during high school graduation ceremonies.

Although the bill has been passed several times by the Minnesota House of Representatives, the state Senate fails to support the legislation.

“We have a split legislature in Minnesota, with a Democratic majority in the House and a Republican majority in the Senate,” Kunesh said.

“It continues to be a bone of contention that generates strong discussion; opponents complain that schools will be opening the door to other expressions of religion and free speech such as wearing Confederate flags or a Nazi symbol,” she said.

Some fellow legislators also believe that the state government gives too much to Native people.

“I remember a legislator asking me, ‘why are we always giving Indians so much?’ I told him we aren’t giving them anything; we’re meeting our previous agreements guaranteed in treaties,” Kunesh said. “Although we can’t go back and do everything over again, going forward we have opportunities to do things the way they should be done, with integrity and generosity of heart.”

She noted that Native students have some of the lowest high school graduation rates of any ethnicity in the country. Native students dropout of high school at rates of 60 percent or more, according to the National Indian Education Association.

“High school graduation is a really significant accomplishment,” Kunesh said. “What better way to celebrate this achievement than with an eagle feather you have earned or maybe some beadwork that the student or family member has lovingly created.”

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