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Native American high school graduate sues school district after she says she wasn’t allowed to wear sacred eagle feather at graduation

<i>From Native American Rights Fund</i><br/>Lena' Black
From Native American Rights Fund
Lena' Black

By Nicole Chavez, CNN

(CNN) — A high school graduate is suing her former Oklahoma school district after she says school officials prevented her from wearing a sacred eagle plume on her graduation cap.

At issue is an encounter that occurred last year shortly before graduation, according to the lawsuit, which was filed last week in Tulsa County against Broken Arrow Public Schools and two district employees by attorneys representing the student, Lena’ Black. She is an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and of Osage descent, according to the lawsuit.

Black was waiting to take her seat for the graduation ceremony at Broken Arrow when, according to the lawsuit, two school officials told her she needed to remove the “decoration” from her cap and then attempted to pull off the eagle plume.

In the suit, Black argues her rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion were violated.

The school district says it has a widely-used process to allow students to get permission to deviate from traditional graduation attire, but the graduate says she wasn’t aware of the request process and got permission from a teacher.

“Lena’ really felt like this was an attack on, on her person, on her religion, on her culture,” Morgan Saunders, an attorney with Native American Rights Fund who is representing Black, told CNN. “She’s been using this feather in religious and cultural ceremonies since she was 3 years old and it carries an incredible amount of significance.”

During the encounter, the plume was damaged, and Black had a panic attack, according to the lawsuit.

Tara Thompson, a spokesperson for Broken Arrow Public Schools, declined to comment on the lawsuit. She noted the school district has had a process in place for several years for students who want to add items to their graduation regalia.

“Not only do we make exceptions for the Native American tribes, we also allow other religious and ethnic heritages to be celebrated by the wearing of specific items,” Thompson told CNN, adding nearly 100 students completed the process to “deviate from the traditional dress code” for this year’s graduation ceremony.

As part of the process, students are required to submit an application before graduation that includes a photo of the item they wish to wear during the ceremony and to meet with the Native American education coordinator or a school principal before they receive written approval, according to the district’s website.

In the lawsuit, Black says she didn’t know she needed to request approval with the district’s Native American education coordinator, who was on leave at the time. Black said she asked a teacher about wearing her plume and was told she could do so, the suit says.

“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,” Black said in a statement. “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.”

Black is seeking at least $50,000 in compensatory damages, punitive damages, costs and attorney fees, according to the lawsuit.

Saunders, the attorney, said the incident illustrates an ongoing issue impacting Native American families. At this time of the year, the Native American Rights Fund gets a “huge influx of requests for assistance” from people whose schools are trying to block them from wearing religious regalia, she said.

The lawsuit comes as the Oklahoma legislature voted to override Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of legislation that would allow students to wear tribal regalia during high school and college graduations.

The state legislature voted 80 to 11, easily getting the two-thirds votes needed to override Gov. Stitt’s veto.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr said the override shows respect for the Native American community.

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