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Why Can’t This Native American Student Wear A Feather In His Graduation Cap?

Graduation is a time to feel proud — to shine. But for Christian Titman, a senior at Clovis High School in California, that shine feels a little dimmed. Why? Because Christian, a senior from Clovis High School, was denied the right to wear an eagle feather during his graduation ceremony.

“The eagle feather represents the pride I have for my tribe, my people, and my heritage,” high school senior Christian Titman says.

CILS, NARF, and ACLU sued the high school and won.

Every year, school authorities deny Indian students from wearing traditional and cultural regalia during their graduation ceremonies in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

CILS has successfully intervened in many of these cases as advocates for students, often resulting in the school’s retraction of its denial. Unfortunately not every Native American student can seek legal assistance. Those unrepresented youth encountered hostile results when school officials forcibly removed eagle feathers from their graduation cap at the moment the student received their diploma.

When CILS brought this issue to the attention of Assemblymember Todd Gloria, (D-San Diego), he introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 233 to amend the Education Code by prescribing that a school cannot institute a policy that “prohibits a pupil from wearing religious, ceremonial or cultural adornments at high school graduation ceremonies.”

On March 15, 2017, the Assembly Education Committee held a hearing and passed AB-233, that was introduced by Assemblymember Todd Gloria. Under AB-233 the California Education Code would be amended to prohibit schools from denying students the right to wear traditional, cultural, or religious adornment on their cap and gown during graduation. The need for this amendment comes after numerous contacts received by CILS each graduation season from Native American students and their families reporting that their local school is denying the student the right to wear an eagle feather on their graduation cap, beaded adornment on their gown or a tribal traditional sash. Testifying before the Committee on the importance and need for AB-233 was CILS Executive Director, Dorothy Alther, the Honorable Chairman from the Rincon Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, Bo Mazzetti and Ms. Rebekah Israel, a member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe who graduated in 2016 and had her eagle feather removed from her graduation cap.

The California School Board Association (CSBA) filed a letter opposing the bill and testified against AB-233 contending, among other things, that the amendment was unnecessary because current law and local school district already ensure students the right to wear items of religious significance at their graduation, such as an eagle feather. As pointed out by the testimony of both Ms. Alther and Ms. Israel, this is not the case, and there is a lack of consistency among school districts on this issue. Ab-233 will bring a uniform, standard and practice to all schools ensuring no student is denied their right to freedom of expression at their graduation.

AB-233 will now move to the Assembly Judiciary Committee for review and hearing.

CILS will like to thank all of the tribes that submitted letters of support and/or had their representatives at the hearing to voice their support directly before the Committee.

CILS partnered with the California Indian Culture & Sovereignty Center, CSU San Marcos American Indian Studies Department, and the Video in the Community class to produce this short video capturing the importance of this issue for Native American students and tribes. The video was made possible through the American Indian Digital Media & Culture Project which is funded by a grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Watch the Assembly Education Committee meeting here and bypass watching the entire three-hour meeting by scrolling down the list and clicking on AB-233.