Native Students Have a Right to Wear Eagle Feathers in Oklahoma at Graduation

High school senior Tvvi Birdshead wants to wear an eagle feather, beaded graduation cap and honor cord to his graduation ceremony.

Guest Commentary

Published April 22, 2019

High school graduation ceremonies across Oklahoma will soon take place. Graduation from high school is an especially significant occasion for Cherokee students and families.

We are thankful that Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter weighed in last year and laid out the state’s protection of Native American students’ right to display eagle feathers in their graduation ceremonies. In a letter, he wrote: “It is my duty both to protect the rights of Oklahoma citizens as provided for by law and to advise that the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act generally requires public schools to permit Cherokee students to engage in the spiritual practice of wearing eagle feathers to important events, such as graduations, even if this requires a religious exemption to an otherwise generally applicable rule. Accordingly, I urge the board to adopt or revise its policies to permit these religious practices at graduation.”

It hasn’t always been this way.

The precedent was established last fall for a Cherokee family within the Vian School District in northeast Oklahoma. We hope this sets the standard for all other school districts in Oklahoma to follow.

Tribal nations in Oklahoma and across the country have long viewed eagles and eagle feathers as sacred elements to religious and cultural traditions, and federal law and policy has recognized the religious significance of eagle feathers to Native peoples.

Chief Bill John Baker

Feathers are gifted to mark significant personal achievement, for leadership or academic accomplishment, as a sign of maturity and to signify an important achievement in an educational journey. It is done to honor the graduate and his or her family, the community and the tribe. Culturally, receiving an eagle feather in recognition of high school graduation can be just as significant as earning the diploma itself.

Cherokees graduating high school can now enjoy the spiritual freedom to show who they are at this critical juncture in their life, a time appropriately marked with pride. The eagle feather is a powerful symbol that represents trust, honor, strength, wisdom, power and freedom. It is an object that is deeply revered and a sign of the highest honor.

We value General Hunter’s partnership and support. A cooperative relationship between Cherokee Nation’s attorney general’s office and the Oklahoma office of the attorney general ensures we are creating a better future for all Oklahomans. It is our hope that we continue to collaborate on our common goal of improving the lives of all citizens, Cherokee and non-Cherokee alike.

Today, through General Hunter’s support, we also have established the state of Oklahoma’s support. No Native student should ever be barred fromwearing eagle feathers or displaying their cultural pride at graduation.

Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

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