Native American high school grad says school prohibited her from wearing sacred eagle plume at graduation
Graduating from high school was supposed to be a proud day for Lena Black, a Native American teen from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. But according to the young woman, the day she earned her high school diploma turned out to be memorable for an entirely different reason — one she’s now suing her former school district over.
Black is an enrolled citizen of the Otoe-Missouria tribe and of Osage descent, according to Native News Online. As such, she received a sacred eagle plume during a ceremony when she was little and hoped to wear it while walking across the graduation stage last year.
“My eagle plume has been part of my cultural and spiritual practices since I was three years old,” Black recently shared in a statement. “I wore this plume on graduation day in recognition of my academic achievement and to carry the prayers of my Otoe-Missouria community with me.”
At least 3 students have been denied the right to wear their tribal regalia during graduation since Governor Stitt’s veto of SB 429. Contact your lawmakers to ask them to support a veto override now.https://t.co/ezAtTXjlqD
— Cindy (she/her) (@CindyNguyenOK) May 16, 2023
According to Black, she believes she had every right to do so after running it by a teacher who approved it. The teen even passed several checkpoints on the day of the ceremony without anyone saying a word. But before she could officially claim her diploma on stage, Black alleges that both a school counselor and a security guard stood in her way, removing the plume in a forceful and aggressive manner that ultimately damaged the item.
“The law protects my right to wear this eagle plume at my graduation,” the former student declared in her statement, “and school officials had no authority to forcibly remove it from my cap.”
Black told Tulsa World that the sacred plume consists of a feather, which was attached to her mortarboard. But when it came down to graduation day, Black claims that no amount of reasoning would work with the two employees who removed it from her cap.
The young woman later claimed she was humiliated by the altercation and even suffered a panic attack. Eventually, she was able to walk across the graduation stage to grab her diploma, but by that point, Black claims she could only hold the damaged eagle feather in her hand.
The Associated Press reports that Black filed the lawsuit on May 15 with the Tulsa County District Court. In it, the plaintiff accuses Broken Arrow Public Schools and the two unnamed employees of intentionally inflicting emotional distress and negligence while violating her constitutional rights to both free speech and freedom of religion.
The high school grad is now seeking at least $50,000 in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages.
According to the Associated Press, district spokesperson Tara Thompson said that the district had not yet been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment as of Wednesday last week. However, Thompson did tell the outlet that all students are allowed to add items to their graduation outfits, including the caps.
“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 reportedly said in her statement.
That said, the controversy comes amid a broader debate in Oklahoma, where the issue of wearing tribal regalia has become political.
A recently proposed bill known as SB-429 was drafted in order to protect students like Black by affirming Native students’ right to wear tribal regalia during graduation ceremonies. According to Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the bill was incredibly popular throughout Oklahoma and had actually passed in both houses of the Oklahoma legislature with almost unanimous bipartisan support.
However, earlier this month, Gov. Kevin Stitt, himself a Cherokee citizen, vetoed the bill in a move that has stunned many.
In response to the backlash, Stitt said the decision should ultimately be left up to individual school districts to decide. He also claimed that passing the bill would open a “pandora’s box” if other groups were to ask for what he deemed special treatment, News 9 reported.
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