Forced to Choose Between Celebration and Spiritual Beliefs
Last year, Larissa Waln (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) was turned away from her high school graduation. As she entered the stadium with her classmates, school officials stopped her at the door and would not allow her to enter and participate in the graduation ceremony. The reason? Because Larissa was wearing religious attire, namely a beaded graduation cap including a sacred medicine wheel and eagle plume that had been blessed for the occasion.
The district claimed that allowing Larissa to observe her religion in this way would prove disruptive to other students’ experience of the graduation ceremony and, insisted, that “[n]o student would be allowed to participate in the commencement ceremony with an adorned or altered commencement cap,” with absolutely no exceptions to be tolerated. However, later the same day that Larissa was turned away, a neighboring high school held its graduation ceremony in the same stadium. At that event, a student wore what appeared to be a breast cancer awareness sticker on his cap. Despite the school district’s pronouncement that no student would be permitted to participate with an adorned cap, this student participated in the ceremony in full view of faculty.
By refusing to allow Larissa Waln to wear her traditional beaded cap and sacred eagle plume, school and district administrators infringed on the Waln family’s rights to the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and equal protection of the law under the Arizona Constitution, the Arizona Free Exercise of Religion Act, the US Constitution, and 42 USC § 1983. On Friday, April 24, 2020, the Waln family, represented by the Native American Rights Fund and Rothstein Donatelli brought suit against the school district for its illegal denial of Larissa’s rights. The Walns ask the court to declare the policies and practice of banning Native American students from expressing their religion through beaded caps and eagle feathers or plumes illegal. A student should not have to choose between her religious and spiritual beliefs and celebrating her academic achievements.
Every spring, NARF is contacted by Native American students from across the country who are prohibited from wearing eagle feathers at graduation ceremonies due to narrow graduation dress codes. By and large, once those 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. NARF continues to advocate for these graduates so they can celebrate their successes without sacrificing their tribal identity.
Students and their families can find legal information about wearing eagle feathers at graduation on our website at https://www.narf.org/cases/graduation/.