VIAN, Okla. – A northeastern Oklahoma school district has reversed its graduation dress code policy to allow Cherokee students to wear eagle feathers at the ceremonies, after the state suggested a ban restricts religious freedom.
Federal law restricts the possession of eagle feathers but allows tribal members to use them for religious or spiritual purposes. Cherokee citizens must receive special tribal approval to legally possess feathers, officials said.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter wrote to Vian Public Schools Tuesday urging officials to allow student Natalie Briggs to wear a ceremonial eagle feather to her graduation in May 2019.
"Based on my understanding of Cherokee spiritual practices, prohibiting students from wearing ceremonial eagle feathers on their graduation caps would substantially burden their free exercise of religion under (the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act)," he said.
Vian is 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Tulsa. The school district declined a similar request in May from William Christie, Briggs' brother. The district's policy prohibits students from altering their graduation caps, according to high school Principal John Brockman.
The Cherokee Nation this month asked board members to grant a religious exemption for students who want to practice traditional Cherokee spirituality. Hunter's letter arrived as school officials were considering the request.
Superintendent Victor Salcedo said the district will follow Hunter's advice.
"Students are what we're all about here," Salcedo said. "We're always willing to sit down with students and respect their opinions."
Christie said the decision "means a lot."
"I'm happy for my sister and other native students who want to wear an eagle feather at graduation," he said. "Hopefully other schools will follow."
Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com