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Native American high-schoolers who want to wear eagle feathers for graduation take their cause to court

Christian Titman walked into Lamonica Stadium for Clovis High's graduation ceremony in June, 2015, in Clovis, Calif. The Native American student wore an eagle feather to graduation after resolving a court fight with the school district over the sacred object.
Christian Titman walked into Lamonica Stadium for Clovis High's graduation ceremony in June, 2015, in Clovis, Calif. The Native American student wore an eagle feather to graduation after resolving a court fight with the school district over the sacred object. Associated Press

Last graduation season, Waverly Wilson, a senior at Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash., asked if she could wear an eagle feather instead of the tassel on her mortar board.

Eagle feathers are sacred in Wilson’s Native American culture, typically presented by parents or other elders to tribe members to recognize major accomplishments and milestones, such as high school graduation.

School officials denied Wilson’s request, saying a feather would violate the district’s rules prohibiting add-ons to caps and gowns.

“They said I have to have it inside my gown, and I could only have it out afterwards,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network before graduation day. “So I could not have it when I was going out on stage.

“It makes me feel like I have to hide who I am.”

But then, before she walked across the stage to get her diploma, Wilson furtively tucked the feather - blessed by prayer and decorated with special beading by her mother - alongside her orange-and-blue tassel.

She was not the first Native American high-schooler to be told to leave the eagle feather at home. Most public school districts allow Native American students to wear eagle feathers at graduation, according to the Native American Rights Fund and Tribal Education Departments National Assembly.

But the schools that say no? Students are taking them to court - and social media - and the results have been mixed.

Last year Native American students at high schools in Grand Forks, N.D. fought back against the district’s policy banning “personal additions” to graduation attire.

They started a petition on Change.org. and started a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #LetTheFeathersFly.

After a meeting between Native American parents and school administrators - described as “very informative” by school officials - the ban was lifted.

After seeing a handful of school districts across the country banned feathers last graduation season, the National Congress of American Indians issued a statement urging all schools to “respect traditional tribal religious and spiritual beliefs by allowing Native students to wear an eagle feather at graduation.”

Clashes over eagle feathers come up every year around graduation time and demonstrate the need to educate people about Native American culture, Tara Houska, a tribal rights attorney in Washington, D.C., told the Associated Press last year.

“Just like the hijab or yarmulke, this is something that is intrinsic to the religion,” Houska said. “This isn't just a symbol or something that is an individual fashion choice.”

Last month Native American seniors at Elton High School in Louisiana’s Jefferson Davis Parish were told they could not wear eagle feathers on graduation day, according to the American Press.

“We are not doing this to be disrespectful. We just want to show pride, and we should be allowed to celebrate our heritage,” senior Sophia John, the reigning Coushatta Tribal princess, told reporters.

After students and Coushatta Tribe members complained, school officials relented, pledging to work with tribal leaders to find a compromise.

“Education is about teachable moments,” Coushatta Tribe Vice Chairman David Sickey said.

“Therefore in this special moment one should know that a feather in our Native American culture signals trust, honor, strength, wisdom, power and respect. It is a remembrance of who we are as a people - the first Americans.”

Last year Christian Titman asked a court to intervene when officials at Clovis High School in California told him he couldn’t wear his eagle feather on graduation day.

Titman, a member of the Pit River Tribe, argued that the district was violating his freedom of expression and religion under state law. His father gave him the feather to represent the important life transition of graduation.

“It’s really simple. They’re telling me, ‘Don’t be proud you’re Indian. Don’t be proud of your heritage. Don’t be proud of your accomplishment,” Titman told the Los Angeles Times.

School officials stood by their graduation dress code that also prohibits graduates from wearing stoles, leis, rosaries and religious necklaces. The rules are meant, in part, to avoid “disruption” if students are allowed to alter or add on to their caps and gowns, said superintendent Janet Young.

“The implication that an eagle feather with religious significance is unacceptable or disruptive signals a deep disrespect from the district,” argued Novella Coleman, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union which supported Titman’s case.

Right before graduation day, Titman and school officials reached a compromise. He wore the feather in his hair during the ceremony and was allowed to attach it to his cap when it was time to move the tassel to the opposite side.

Hayden Griffith was less successful last year at her school in Ramona, Okla., where she was told her she could not wear the feather given to her by a tribal elder on her graduation cap.

The school district gave Griffith, a member of the Cherokee Nation and Delaware Tribe, other options for carrying the feather or wearing it in her hair, according to News 9 in Oklahoma City, but refused to let her attach it to her cap.

Griffith, who insisted the feather was not decoration, asked a federal court for an injunction but was denied.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gregory Frizzell said the school’s policy of prohibiting all decorations on graduation caps did not violate Griffith’s constitutional right to exercise religion freely because it was religion-neutral and applied generally.

Frizzell also ruled that the school had a legitimate interest in maintaining formality for the ceremony and demonstrating unity for the seniors.

So Griffith graduated without the feather but put it on her mortarboard after the ceremony for picture-taking.

“It’s not quite the outcome we wanted, but we’re still pretty proud of her,” her grandmother, Bonnie Jo Griffith, told the Tulsa World.

Superintendent Rick Peters, who was shocked that Griffith’s request received so much media attention, told local reporters the district stood by its policy.

He said the rules, and the federal judge's ruling, were not punitive against Native Americans because other students are also told they can’t change their caps and gowns.

“It's just a blanket no, we don't do that,” Peters said. “We're the same for everyone.”

Griffith hasn’t dropped the issue. Last month she filed a lawsuit against the school district claiming that it had violated her rights under Oklahoma’s Religious Freedom Act.

The Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise reports that Griffith, now attending community college in Kansas, is seeking more than $10,000 in damages against Peters and the school district.

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