An Oklahoma school district is being sued by a Native American grad who had an eagle feather removed from her cap. Lena’ Black, an offspring of the Otoe-Missouria and Osage peoples, filed a lawsuit against Broken Arrow Public Schools and two employees in Tulsa County District Court on Monday. She claims that her state and federal rights to free speech and religion have been violated, along with intentional mental agony and negligence.
When graduation day arrived in May of 2022, Black was ready to take his place on the football field. Two members of the faculty tried to take off the eagle plume from her mortarboard, hurting it in the process, and informed her she couldn’t wear it since it was against school policy. Black testified that she was given the plume at the age of three after her Otoe-Missouria community prayed for her safety.
Black claimed that she had permission from a teacher to wear the plume, and that other students were donning crosses. She felt humiliated and scared since her arguments were disregarded. On the graduation platform, Black was the one to carry the eagle feather.
The lawsuit is asking for punitive damages and compensatory damages totaling $50,000. Tara Thompson, a representative for the school district, said on Wednesday that the suburban Tulsa institution had not been served with the lawsuit and therefore would not comment. “We make exceptions for Native American tribes,” Thompson continued, “but we also allow others to celebrate their religious and ethnic heritages by wearing specific items.”
With Black’s help, state schools evaluated their policies on Indigenous pupils wearing tribal regalia, feathers, and other culturally significant things in January 2020, after a request from then-Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. The letter contains a letter from Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter from 2019, which states that Native American students are protected by the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act when they choose to display eagle feathers on their mortarboards.
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt recently vetoed a graduation regalia bill. Proponents of the vetoed bill hope to overturn the governor’s decision before the end of the legislative session on May 26.