TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — An effort by the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma attorney general has now prompted the Vian Public School Board to change its graduation policy and allow Cherokee students to wear eagle feathers.
The Cherokee Nation got involved earlier this year after being contacted by a Cherokee family in Vian, according to Cherokee Nation officials. William Christie, who graduated in 2018, was denied the right to wear his eagle feather to graduation. His sister Natalie will graduate in May, and the family asked during an October school board meeting that she be allowed to wear hers.
Tribal Councilor E.O. Smith and Deputy Attorney General Chrissi Ross Nimmo both spoke at the meeting, while Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. also wrote a support letter on behalf of the tribe.
“The graduation ceremony will move forward and we believe without disruption. Rather, it will be enhanced by citizens of the community being able to express their religious sentiments, in this case Native American students wearing eagle feathers,” Hoskin said. “We appreciate that there is state protection for this, just as there is federal protection. We also thank the Vian Public School District for making this policy change."
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter intervened this week by sending the Vian School Board a letter urging the board to permit the use of spiritual eagle feathers by Cherokee students at graduation, citing a state law, according to a Cherokee Nation news release.
“It has come to my attention that Cherokee tribal members who are students in your school are seeking to wear ceremonial eagle feathers on their graduation caps during their high school graduation,” Hunter wrote in the letter. “As chief law enforcement officer of this state, 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.”
William Christie said Wednesday he’s thankful for the backing of the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma attorney general to get the school policy changed.
“This means a lot,” Christie says in the release. “I’m happy for my sister and other Native students who want to wear an eagle feather at graduation. Hopefully other schools will follow.”
For traditional Natives, an eagle feather is a symbol of Native pride. If a veteran or elder has gifted the feather, it is even more meaningful and a sign of the highest honor one can give or receive. Under federal law, possession of an eagle feather is prohibited, though tribal citizens are permitted to have one for religious or spiritual reasons. A citizen of a federally recognized tribe can request permission to possess an eagle feather.
At the Cherokee Nation, forms are taken to the registration department, and then the registrar vets the applicant for citizenship and personally signs each application, the release states.
“We’re thankful to have a cooperative relationship between the Cherokee Nation Attorney General’s office and the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General and glad we see this issue in the same light — that our Cherokee students have the spiritual freedom to show who they are at a point in their life that should be marked with pride and celebration,” Ross Nimmo states in the release. “We hope that other school districts in Oklahoma also follow the advice of the state attorney general.”