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Native American High School Graduate Sues School District for Forceful Removal of Sacred Eagle Plume


Lena’ Black (Photo: Native American Rights Fund)

High school graduate Lena’ Black, an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and of Osage descent, filed a lawsuit on May 15 against the Broken Arrow School District for violating her rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.

At Black’s 2022 high school graduation, school officials attempted to forcefully remove a sacred eagle plume Black wore on her cap. The plume, which she received in ceremony when she was three years old, was damaged by the attempt. Black said she passed several checkpoints leading up to the ceremony before being approached by a school counselor and security guard who "kept trying to take it off her."

Black told the Tulsa World the feather was attached to her mortarboard and that she had been told previously that the feather would be allowed because of its cultural significance.

“My eagle plume has been part of my cultural and spiritual practices since I was three years old,” Black said 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.

The law protects my right to wear this eagle plume at my graduation, and school officials had no authority to forcibly remove it from my cap.”

The school district declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"At this time, the District has not yet been served with a court filing on behalf of Ms. Black," Broken Arrow Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Tara Thompson wrote in an email to Native News Online. "As a result, it would be inappropriate to comment publicly as to such a lawsuit."

However, Thompson said the school district has a process through which students are approved to wear regalia or other culturally significant items in the graduation ceremony. The process is intended to prevent cultural appropriation and ensure that students remain respectful during the graduation ceremony, she said.

Students must fill out an application on the school district's website and submit a photo of the item they request to wear. Native American students submitting a regalia request work with the district's Indian education coordinator to get approval; students who are not Native American, but are requesting to wear items significant to their culture or religion, work with their high school principal for approval.

According to the lawsuit, the district's Indian education coordinator is on leave until September 2023. At the time of Black's graduation, there was no interim director.

Black is represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Pipestem Law, P.C.

“We will hold the Broken Arrow School District accountable for its discriminatory actions,” NARF Staff Attorney Morgan Saunders said in a statement. “The Broken Arrow School District violated Ms. Black’s rights despite existing laws that should have ensured she was able to wear her eagle plume without incident.”

Pipestem Law Partner Wilson Pipestem added that the lawsuit demonstrates why decisions regarding regalia at graduation ceremonies should not be left up to individual school districts.

“Without clarity from the State, Native students will continue to be forced to seek justice in the courts after their rights have been violated and their graduation ceremonies are long since over,” Pipestream said.

While traditions vary, members of many Tribal Nations wear specific clothing or objects, like eagle plumes, at graduation ceremonies to signify their academic achievement and in recognition of their spiritual and religious beliefs.

“I filed this lawsuit to ensure everyone understands the importance of items like my eagle plume and to prevent schools from targeting Native students like me in the future,” Black said. “No student should face ignorance and discrimination in their school or their community."

The lawsuit and widespread exposure for this incident come in the wake of Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt's recent veto of Oklahoma Senate Bill 429, which was passed by the state legislature with near-unanimous bipartisan support to prohibit discriminatory graduation dress codes. The bill would have reaffirmed the rights of Native American students like Black to wear tribal regalia at graduations, a critical protection in the state with the second highest concentration of American Indians.

Following his veto, Governor Stitt — an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation — suggested this issue should be resolved at the district level instead.

In a statement released by the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma on Wednesday, May 17, Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotten said, “Lena Black and her family are well known among the Otoe-Missouria people. From the Elk Clan, Lena serves as the Princess for our Red Rock Creek Gourd Dance Society. She does not stand alone. Her Otoe-Missouria Tribe and People stand with her as she fights to vindicate her rights and make positive change for all Native students.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include comments from the Broken Arrow Public Schools and a statement from Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotte.

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