Recently, the Caney Valley Public Schools superintendent denied a graduating Native American student’s request to wear her sacred eagle feather on her graduation cap during the upcoming commencement ceremony. Unfortunately, this is not the first time an Oklahoma school district has prohibitedi a Native American student from demonstrating this very sincere form of cultural and religious expression during one of life’s most significant occasionsii.
In many Native American cultures, the eagle feather symbolizes strength, nobility, courage, perseverance, respect and wisdom. Leaders and elders only gift eagle feathers in times of great achievement. For Native American students, receiving an eagle feather or plume in honor of graduation is as important as the diploma. Native American students incorporate the eagle feather or plume into their graduation regalia by attaching it to their graduation cap or tassel. By adorning the eagle feather or plume during the commencement ceremony, Native American students express both their religious and cultural beliefs, while honoring their Native American heritage. Wearing the eagle feather or plume is a great badge of honor and pride. Banning this dress demeans and hurts students.
School administrators generally cite commencement ceremony policies in student handbooks as the basis for denying a Native American student’s request to wear eagle feathers. In the past, school administrators have denied requests based on policies establishing a strict no adornment dress code during commencement; policies prohibiting disruptive activity; and even school tradition. Despite these seemingly reasonable explanations, requiring Native American students to strip away all outward signs of their association with tribal life is a direct assault on the students’ identities and brings to mind the infamous maxim,“Kill the Indian, save the man.”iii
In this instance, tribal leaders and citizens should reconsider protesting the school’s policy by ignoring the disrespectful policy and wearing an eagle feather or plume during the commencement ceremony anyway. As a practical matter, schools have much leeway to make and enforce commencement ceremony rules. Ignoring the policy could have bad consequences: the school might permit a student to graduate, but she may not get her diploma at the ceremony or the school might ban the student from participating in the ceremony at all.
An alternative protest approach for tribal leaders, citizens and students would be to petition school boards to change their commencement ceremony policies. In January 2015, graduating Native American students in Grand Forks, North Dakota, secured their right to wear eagle feathers during the upcoming graduation ceremonies by successfully persuading the school administration to change the commencement ceremony dress policiesiv. Grand Forks Public Schools previously enforced a strict no adornment dress code policy at high school graduations which, in the past, used to deny Native American students’ requests. After facing strong opposition from many organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Native American Rights Fund, and individuals in the community, the Grand Forks school district administrators came to understand and respect these beliefs and unanimously decided to change the dress code policyvi.
The vast majority (92 percent) of Native American students attend local public schools operated by state and local education authoritiesvii. In this modern era, schools should support and respect the expression of cultural identity and Native American heritageviii. The celebration and honor of educational advancement through high school graduation ceremonies should reflect the diversity of our Native American students. We encourage tribal leaders to reach out to state and local education authorities as soon as possible. Ask the school boards to respect this deeply-held tribal tradition by permitting Native American students to include an eagle feather or eagle plume on their graduation regalia during commencement ceremonies.
If you have any questions regarding how to handle a restrictive graduation dress code policy, please contact Courtney R. Jordan, D. Michael McBride III or any other member of Crowe & Dunlevy's Indian Law & Gaming practice group.
Courtney R. Jordan
D. Michael McBride III