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Seniors should be able to wear feathers at graduation

On May 1, the Escambia Academy Board of Directors voted no to a request that would have allowed graduating Native American seniors attending the academy to wear eagle feathers during the ceremony. Several seniors, parents, tribal members, and even tribal council representatives had requested repeatedly to be placed on the agenda to share the significance and purpose behind honoring tribal youth with a feather to be worn for graduation. In the end, no tribal representation was welcomed to present the information, and the request fell on unconcerned ears.

Long ago, and still a tradition today, we honor our people’s achievements with feathers. They represent commitment, hard work, and pride in tribal heritage. The eagle feather is sometimes seen as a religious object because it comes from the bird that flies the highest and therefore closest to God. While the school officials and board may think this is a small matter, to many, it is a form of oppression and refusing children a portion of their rich heritage.

This is not a new issue however, and similar conflicts can be found all over the country. Mykillie Driver (Assiniboine/Lakota Sioux) fought for her rights to wear a feather in Oregon last year and very similar to the Escambia Academy policy, the school had a ‘no adornment’ policy in place. After meeting with the superintendent, she was allowed to wear her feather proudly when she walked across the stage to receive her diploma. This is just one out of dozens of instances. A small feather hanging from the graduation cap would not interfere with the traditional cap & gown. Some students will be adorned in extra banners and tassels from their school clubs and honors, what’s different about them than the Native American students being allowed to wear a feather?

All the situations that have occurred like this, result in adhering to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Public Law No. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469 (Aug. 11, 1978) which states: that Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians have the rights to access of sacred sites, freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rights and use and possession of objects considered sacred. The Act required policies of all governmental agencies to eliminate interference with the free exercise of Native religion, based on the First Amendment, and to accommodate access to and use of religious sites to the extent that the use is practicable and is not inconsistent with an agency’s essential functions. It also acknowledges the prior violation of that right.

With all the scholarship money, donations, and athletic program funds generously given to Escambia Academy by the tribe, one would think school officials and board members would be more apt to allowing Native American students to wear such a meaningful piece of their culture-in fact encouraging it! Sadly, this is not the case, and maybe the tribe should donate only to schools who are accepting of their Native student population’s spiritual beliefs…or just build their own school.

Alex Alvarez

Atmore resident