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Earlier this month Seminole High School in Oklahoma, whose mascot is a “Chieftain” in a feather headdress, announced that this year’s 25 graduating Native American seniors would not be allowed to wear feathers on their graduation caps. One graduate, Kaden Tiger, wore his anyway and proudly posted photos on Facebook.
Amari White, parent of another graduating senior, Sefuan White, told a Native News reporter that his son, a football player who will be playing for Ohio University next year, had been given eagle feathers to wear as an honor from their tribes (Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw). White said, “It does confuse me, that you use the Chieftain mascot, but you can’t honor with a feather, when you have painted on the walls, it confuses me.”
Meanwhile, at Kingfisher High School, also in Oklahoma, Minnie Woods-Bushyhead reported that her son’s eagle feather had been ripped off of his cap by school counselor Karee Patterson, and that the high school basketball ball Coach Jeff Myers had to be stopped from throwing the feather on the ground when it was handed to him.
This all comes at a time when it seems America is re-evaluating the gains of the Civil Rights movement with the recent 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, last fall’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and this summer’s 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In a speech to graduating high school seniors in Topeka, Kan., where the historic legal case began, Michelle Obama said schools today are as segregated as they were in April 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “Mountaintop” speech, his final address. “So while students attend school in the same building, they never really reach beyond their own circles, and that probably happens here in Topeka too sometimes,” the First Lady said. “And these issues go well beyond the walls of our schools.”
Both Oklahoma high schools where graduates were harassed for wearing feathers are integrated and have a high percentage of Native American students. At Seminole High School, the student body is 49 percent Native American, according to a Public School Review. Yet, white school administrators seem to have little understanding of Native culture.
In the case of Kingfisher High School, Patterson forcefully ripped an eagle feather off of a graduating senior’s cap. And in the case of Seminole High School, the Seminole School District’s Superintendent Jeff Pritchard, reiterated to the press before the graduation that eagle feathers could not be worn because they did not represent “achievements attained under the district’s purview.”
The giving of feathers for great accomplishments is as intrinsic to Native culture as the giving of diplomas or paper awards in European culture. Eagle feathers have even gone into space. When my grandma Bow’s nephew, astronaut John B. Herrington (Chickasaw), was preparing for his lift off, my grandfather Phil Lane, Sr. gifted him with an eagle feather and NASA allowed him to take it to space with him.
Kaden Tiger was given the eagle feather for being an outstanding citizen of the Seminole Nation. “The accomplishment of completing high school is pretty big for me. That eagle feather represents what I’ve accomplished,” he told local media. It would be hard to imagine Christian students being told to not wear crosses, or even tokens like purity rings.
Native American graduates wearing their traditional regalia and feathers is a very old tradition in this country. In 1885, the very first Native American physician, Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha) can be seen in photos wearing her traditional regalia during graduation ceremonies from the Hampton Institute. When I graduated from Dartmouth College, I wore my traditional Navajo clothes with my graduation gown. In countless high schools and colleges across the United States and Canada other Native American and First Nations graduates do the same.
A common artifact of the 19th century are “before and after” photos to demonstrate how successful the schools were in “civilizing” Native American students. The first would show them in their traditional regalia and the second in uncomfortable corsets and boots and their hair worn or up in buns. Yet, even model students like Dr. La Flesche Picotte turned back to their traditional attire when they wanted to truly celebrate their achievements.
After graduation, Kaden Tiger wrote on his Facebook page: “Everyone that had walked with that feather on your mortar board, be proud of what you accomplished, be proud of who you are, be proud to be here and say that you are an indigenous student that did something that displays our culture, of showing that not only was it just a 'feather on our cap' but it was more meaningful to us than most would understand.”
Kaden told me that his actions inspired other Native American students to not only wear their feathers but even our valedictorian, who is Muscogee Creek, began her speech by introducing herself “in our native language, which wasn't part of the graduation ceremony, but it happened, and many non-natives in the audience had no clue what she was saying, but it truly hit the ones who can speak the language. Oh yes, many people were coming to me telling me how proud they were.”
In the end, Kaden’s decision to share his culture brought the community together and the response was positive, even from the superintendent. The local newspaper reported, "Asked later on Thursday about the students' decisions, Pritchard said he saw nothing disrespectful or in poor taste. ‘I understand the rationale,’ Pritchard said. ‘The feather is something to be proud of, and not worn out of spite. But the rules are made so that some people don't go too far and wear something like a swastika, something worn out of hate.’”
Meanwhile, Minnie Woods-Bushyhead (Cheyenne) says she will be filing assault charges against the school officials, as she believes a hate crime was committed against her son, who serves in the National Guard and will enlist when he turns 18 in June. She said, “My son got an apology letter from the superintendent, we didn't read it yet, my son says to send it back because my son wants an apology from her.”