Wearing Eagle Feathers at Graduation

Attorney: Matthew L. Campbell, David L. Gover

NARF has a long history of assisting students who are prohibited from wearing eagle feathers at graduation ceremonies due to narrow graduation dress codes. We continue to advocate for these graduates so they can celebrate their great successes without sacrificing their tribal identity. Below are resources for students and advocates looking to change narrow graduation dress codes.

Background Information

Many Native communities consider eagles to be spiritually significant. They believe that, as eagles roam the sky, they have a special connection with God. Their feathers represent honesty, truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power, and freedom. The United States government has long recognized the importance of eagles for Native religious and spiritual beliefs. In these communities, eagle feathers are given to individuals to mark and honor significant life accomplishments, such as graduation.

Every spring, NARF is contacted by Native American students from across the country who are being prohibited from wearing eagle feathers at graduation ceremonies. By and large, once schools come to understand the religious and cultural significance of eagle feathers, they make accommodations and exceptions for Native American students. Unfortunately, there are still a handful of school districts that persist in restricting Native American religious liberty. This insistence on uniformity of dress puts Native American students in the position of having to choose between participating in the celebration of a great accomplishment with their classmates or following their Native religious and cultural traditions. Below are resources for students and advocates looking to change narrow graduation dress codes.

Brochures for Students and Schools:
Photo of graduate in cap and gown with eagle featherWearing Eagle Feathers at Graduation

The Tribal Education Department National Assembly and NARF are proud to distribute two flyers (created 2015) to assist students and families in their quests to wear eagle feathers at their graduation ceremonies. Wearing Eagle Feathers at Graduation: A Guide for Students and Families serves to provide guidance on working with school districts to make the request. Wearing Eagle Feathers at Graduation: Information for Schools is an informational flyer about the significance and importance of the eagle feather to graduating students.

Federal Resources

Religious practices are protected under the US Constitution’s Article I and Amendment XIV, which recognize the exercise of religion as an unalienable right. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) explicitly reinforces these protections and provides “a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” Also, federal law states that anyone whose constitutional rights are violated may bring a civil action for deprivation of rights (42 US Code Sec 1983).

The federal government has long considered eagle feathers religious objects. In 1994, the White House issued a Policy Concerning Distribution of Eagle Feathers for Native American Religious Purposes.

State Resources

North Dakota

House Bill No. 1335 (2019) – Inclusion of traditional tribal regalia and objects of cultural significance

California

Education Code § 35183.1 – Wearing of Traditional Tribal Regalia or Recognized Objects of Religious or Cultural Significance as an Adornment at School Graduation Ceremonies

South Dakota

SDCL § 13-1-66 – Wearing of Traditional Tribal Regalia or Objects of Cultural Significance at School Honoring or Graduation Ceremony to be Permitted

Montana

MCA § 2-1-315 – Tribal Regalia and Objects of Cultural Significance – Allowed at Public Events

Oklahoma

Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act

Attorney General Hunter letter about eagle feathers at graduation (October 23, 2018)

Court Cases

Titman v. Clovis Unified School District – Settlement Agreement (June 2, 2015)

Model School Policies Allowing Accommodations at Graduation

Coming Soon.

Scholarship & Materials

NCAI Resolution #SD-15-006

Read More: Promote Native American Human Rights