TULSA, Okla. (AP) — A Native American former student is suing an Oklahoma school district for the removal of an eagle feather from her graduation cap prior to her high school graduation ceremony.
The lawsuit filed Monday in Tulsa County District Court against Broken Arrow Public Schools and two employees by Lena’ Black alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and violations to her state and federal constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
District spokesperson Tara Thompson said Wednesday that the suburban Tulsa school had not been served with the lawsuit and declined comment on the action, but said all students are allowed 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 said in a statement.
The lawsuit says Black, who is Otoe-Missouria and Osage, was waiting to walk onto the school football field for the May 2022 graduation when she was approached by two school employees. The two told her she could not wear the eagle plume on the graduation cap, also known as a mortarboard, because it was a prohibited decoration and attempted to remove it, damaging it in the process.
Black received the plume during a ceremony when she was 3 years old and “it is a sacred object” that represents “the prayers of her Otoe-Missouria people for her life and protection,” according to the lawsuit.
Black said she tried to explain she had permission from a teacher to wear the plume, described it as a religious item and said other students were wearing religious items, such as crosses, but was ignored.
Black was humiliated and suffered a panic attack as a result of the incident, but eventually walked across the the graduation stage holding the eagle feather in her hand, according to the filing.
The lawsuit seeks at least $50,000 in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages.
Earlier this month, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed a bill that would allow students to wear tribal regalia during graduation ceremonies. Supporters of the bill said they hope to override the governor’s veto before the legislative session ends May 26.
The incident involving Black occurred after then-state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister issued a letter in January 2020 to state schools asking them to review policies on Indigenous students wearing tribal regalia, feathers and other culturally significant items.
The letter included a 2019 letter from then-Attorney General Mike Hunter that an Indigenous student’s right to wear eagle feathers on their mortarboard is protected under the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act.