Native American sues school for barring sacred eagle feather at graduation

·3 min read
A photo of Lena Black wearing her sacred eagle plume on her graduation cap
Lena Black said the eagle plume has been "part of her cultural and spiritual practices" since she was three years old

A Native American high school graduate has sued an Oklahoma school district for not allowing her to wear a sacred eagle feather at graduation.

Lena Black says Broken Arrow Public Schools violated her religious and free speech rights during her commencement ceremony last year.

The Broken Arrow Public Schools has declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Her lawsuit follows another in Colorado, where a student sued for not being allowed to wear her Mexican sash.

The lawsuit, filed on 15 May, says Ms Black was waiting to take her seat at her graduation ceremony when two school officials told her to remove the "decoration" from her cap. It alleges that they attempted to then pull off the eagle plume.

The plume was "physically and ceremonially damaged" as a result, according to the lawsuit, leaving Ms Black distraught.

"My eagle plume has been part of my cultural and spiritual practices since I was three years old," Ms Black said in a statement released by Native American Rights Fund. "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."

Her lawyer, Morgan Saunders, has said that she intends to hold the school "accountable for its discriminatory actions".

"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," Ms Saunders said.

A spokesperson for Broken Arrow Public Schools declined to comment on the lawsuit to media, but noted the school has a process for students who want to add items to their graduation attire that involves submitting a request and obtaining permission from either a principal or the district's Indian Education Coordinator.

"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," spokesperson Tara Thompson told CNN.

In the lawsuit, Ms Black said she asked her teacher in advance of graduation about wearing the eagle plume and the teacher agreed to it. The teacher, according to the lawsuit, did not notify Ms Black of any formal request process.

Ms Black is seeking at least $50,000 (£40,471) in damages from the school district and the two teachers involved.

In a similar case, a Colorado student said she has sued her high school and school district in federal court after she was told she cannot wear a sash composed of symbols from the American and Mexican flags during her graduation on 27 May.

According to a report by the Colorado Sun, Naomi Peña Villasano, 18, claimed in her lawsuit that school officials at Garfield County School District 16 told her she would not be able to graduate if she wore her sash.

According to the lawsuit, the district's superintendent, Jennifer Baugh, has said the policy to ban flags on graduation attire is to not "open the door to a student earing a Confederate flag pin or another flag that would cause offense".

Ms Villasano has asked for a judge to order officials to allow her to wear the sash.