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    Indigenous Graduate Forced to Take Off Sacred Plume for Diploma

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    A Native American high school graduate has filed a lawsuit against an Oklahoma school district for removing and damaging her eagle feather, a sacred object, from her graduation cap in May 2022.

    Lena’ Black, a citizen of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and a descendant of the Osage Nation, said she wore the eagle plume on her cap to recognize her academic achievement and to carry the prayers of her community with her. She received the plume in a ceremony when she was three years old.

    According to the lawsuit, Black was pulled out of a line of graduates and told she had to remove the feather because it violated the dress code. She explained it was not a decoration but a protected religious item. Other classmates, for instance, were wearing crosses. A teacher had also told Black she could wear the eagle plume.

    But two different school employees tried to physically remove the feather from Black’s cap, damaging the plume and prompting Black to have a panic attack, according to the lawsuit.

    “This unnecessary, traumatic experience ruined Ms. Black’s graduation experience, a day of celebration for her, her family and her community,” the lawsuit says.

    The lawsuit names Broken Arrow Public Schools, as well as employees Lesa Dickson and Karen Holman, as defendants. It alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and violations of Black’s state and federal constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

    The lawsuit seeks at least $50,000 in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages.

    Tara Thompson, a spokesperson for the district, said the school had not yet been served, and administrators could not comment on the lawsuit as a result. She said all students are allowed to add items to their graduation regalia.

    “Not only do we make exceptions for the Native American tribes, but we also allow other religious and ethnic heritages to be celebrated by the wearing of specific items,” Thompson said in a statement.

    Eagle feathers are sacred within many Native American cultures and traditions. The incident involving Black occurred after then-state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister issued a letter in January 2020 to state schools asking them to review policies on Indigenous students wearing tribal regalia, feathers, and other culturally significant items.

    Earlier this month, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed a bill that would allow students to wear tribal regalia during graduation ceremonies. Supporters of the bill said they hope to override the governor’s veto before the legislative session ends on May 26.

    Reference:

    • Native American graduate forced to remove eagle feather from cap sues Oklahoma school | The Oklahoman | May 16, 2023
    • Native American high school graduate sues school for removing feather at graduation | WAFB | May 17, 2023
    • Native American High School Graduate Sues School District for Forceful Removal of Sacred Eagle Plume at Graduation | Native News Online | May 16, 2023

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