High school graduate Lena’ Black, an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and of Osage descent, filed a lawsuit on May 15, 2023, against the Broken Arrow School District for violating her rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. Black seeks restitution for emotional distress caused when school officials singled her out and attempted to take her sacred eagle plume by force, damaging the plume that she received in ceremony when she was three years old.
“My eagle plume has been part of my cultural and spiritual practices since I was three years old. I wore this plume on graduation day in recognition of my academic achievement and to carry the prayers of my Otoe-Missouria community with me,” said Lena’ Black. “The law protects my right to wear this eagle plume at my graduation, and school officials had no authority to forcibly remove it from my cap.”
Governor J. Kevin Stitt recently vetoed Oklahoma Senate Bill 429, passed by the state legislature with near unanimous bipartisan support to prohibit discriminatory graduation dress codes. The bill would have reaffirmed the rights of Native American students like Black to wear tribal regalia at graduations, a critical protection in the state with the second highest concentration of American Indians. Following his veto, Governor Stitt suggested this issue should instead be resolved at the district level.
Black is represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Pipestem Law, P.C. “We will hold the Broken Arrow School District accountable for its discriminatory actions,” said NARF Staff Attorney Morgan Saunders. “The Broken Arrow School District violated Ms. Black’s rights despite existing laws that should have ensured she was able to wear her eagle plume without incident.”
“This lawsuit demonstrates why these decisions cannot be left up to individual school districts,” said Pipestem Law Partner Wilson Pipestem. “Without clarity from the State, Native students will continue to be forced to seek justice in the courts after their rights have been violated and their graduation ceremonies are long since over.”
“I filed this lawsuit to ensure everyone understands the importance of items like my eagle plume, and to prevent schools from targeting Native students like me in the future. No student should face ignorance and discrimination in their school or their community,” said Black.
While traditions vary, members of many tribal nations wear specific clothing or objects, like eagle plumes, at graduation ceremonies to signify their academic achievement and in recognition of their spiritual and religious beliefs. Schools, school district leaders, educators, parents, students, and allies can learn more about creating inclusive graduation ceremonies and positive change at: https://narf.org/cases/graduation/.