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Recent Native American grad suing school district for damaging ‘sacred’ eagle feather

A recent Native American graduate is suing her former Oklahoma school district after her sacred eagle plume was damaged just before her high school graduation ceremony last year.

Two school officials told Lena Black that she wouldn’t be able to walk across the ceremony stage with the plume attached to her graduation cap because it is a “prohibited decoration,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed earlier this month.

Black is an Otoe-Missouria Tribe member and of Osage descent who graduated in May 2022.

The student attempted to explain the plume’s significance, but her comments went ignored by the officials, who are named as defendants in the suit. The school employees then tried to “forcibly remove” the object from Black’s graduation cap, rendering it “physically and ceremonially” damaged, the complaint alleges.

Black collapsed to the ground and suffered a panic attack before going on stage, according to the lawsuit. She eventually walked across the stage toward her diploma, with the plume in hand.

“This unnecessary, traumatic experience ruined Ms. Black’s graduation experience, a day of celebration for her, her family and her community,” the lawsuit states, adding that a school employee previously told the student that she’d be able to wear the object on graduation day.

The suit claims that students have been allowed to wear eagle feathers as part of ceremonies in the past, however. Black is seeking $50,000 in damages and attorney’s fees. Reckon has reached out to Broken Arrow School District for comment.

Her attorneys claim that the actions of the school district and officials violated her right to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech under the Oklahoma Constitution, the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act and the U.S. Constitution.

The right to wear items that reflect a person’s identity in graduation ceremonies has been a point of contention in Oklahoma and elsewhere. On Thursday, the Oklahoma state Legislature chose to override Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of a bill that would allow Native American students to wear tribal regalia during high school and college graduation ceremonies.

The measure passed the state House and Senate, which had enough votes to clear the two-thirds threshold. It takes effect July 1.

On Tuesday, the Michigan state Senate passed a bill that would allow students to wear braids, dreadlocks and twists by banning the discrimination of “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”

But stories like Black’s aren’t uncommon. In April, 18-year-old B Hayes, a non-binary student in Nashville, Tenn., was banned from prom because they attended wearing a suit and not a dress, according to an Instagram post.

At that point, Hayes had attended Nashville Christian School for 13 years.

“I should not have to conform to femininity to attend my senior prom,” the student wrote in the post. “I will not compromise who I am to fit in a box. Who are you to tell us what it means to be a woman.”

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