Lena’ Black, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and of Osage descent, sued the Broken Arrow School District last week claiming school officials violated her rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. Photo courtesy of Native American Rights Fund/UPI
May 27 (UPI) — A Native American teen has filed a lawsuit against an Oklahoma school district after school officials tried removing her sacred eagle plume during her graduation ceremony.
Lena’ Black, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and of Osage descent, sued the Broken Arrow School District in the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow last week claiming that school officials violated her rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
Black had worn the eagle plume on her mortarboard cap as she graduated from Broken Arrow High School in 2022, the lawsuit reads.
Eagle feathers and plumes are largely protected under federal law, making them illegal to own, with special exceptions made for members of Native American tribes.
Though meaning and practices vary among Native Americans, eagle feathers and plumes generally have a link to divinity and symbolize strength and bravery. Being able to wear eagle feathers, considered a sacred object, is a matter of great pride for Native Americans.
Black received her eagle plume during a ceremony with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe when she was just three years old.
“The plume Ms. Black received in this pluming ceremony represents the prayers of her Otoe-Missouria people for her life and protection,” the lawsuit reads.
Black alleged in her lawsuit that, before her graduation, two school officials “accosted” her and told her she could not attend the ceremony if she did not remove the prohibited “decoration.”
Despite explaining the cultural importance of the plume, officials “attempted to forcibly remove the eagle plume from her mortarboard,” according to the lawsuit.
“The school officials physically touched Ms. Black’s eagle plume and mortarboard during this encounter,” the lawsuit reads.
Black alleged in the lawsuit that this interaction “damaged” her eagle plume and left her feeling “distraught.”
“Ms. Black collapsed to the ground while the school officials continued to grab at her eagle plume and mortarboard,” the lawsuit reads.
Black removed her eagle plume from her cap to protect it from further damage and later walked across the stage with it in her hand, even as students from other religious groups were allowed to wear crosses and hijabs.
She is being represented in the matter by the Native American Rights Fund and Pipestem Law, which said in a statement that they seek to hold the school district accountable for “discriminatory actions.”
“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,” NARF Staff Attorney Morgan Saunders said in the statement.
NARF noted that the lawsuit also comes after Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt recently vetoed a state senate bill that would have prohibited discriminatory dress codes at graduations. The bill had passed the legislature with near-unanimous bipartisan support and the veto was overridden this week.