Graduations shouldn’t be ‘another form’ of erasure
Native high school students continue battle for the right to wear eagle feathers and regalia at graduations

Maya Fairbanks in her cap and eagle feather she is wearing for graduation at Cloquet High School. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Lamb via Indian Country Today)

Maya Fairbanks in her cap and eagle feather she is wearing for graduation at Cloquet High School. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Lamb via Indian Country Today)

PHOENIX — 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 High 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.

“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.

Native students continue to face pushback on traditional regalia

According to Matthew Campbell, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, the largest legal nonprofit organization defending Native American rights, 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.

“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."

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.

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 passes bill allowing traditional regalia

Arizona passed a bill in April prohibiting schools from barring students wearing eagle feathers or regalia 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.

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