Caney Valley senior fights for eagle feather in graduation cap

Special Correspondent
05/08/2015 04:00 PM
RAMONA, Okla. — It all started with a Facebook photo.

After Hayden Griffith, a Cherokee and Delaware senior at Caney Valley High School, received her graduation cap and gown, her mother, Lisa, snapped a quick photo of her in the gear, along with an eagle feather presented to her by a Delaware elder. The photo was uploaded to Facebook and the Griffiths went about their business.

A few days later, a school faculty member who saw the picture online stopped Hayden Griffith in the hallway and told her the feather would not be welcome at the school’s May 21 graduation ceremony.

“I was being honored,” she said. “This is my showing respect to the person who gave it (the feather) to me, my respect for my people and it shows everyone that I’ve been honored. I got it through hard work. This is a big accomplishment. It’s not the biggest one I’ll ever get, but it’s a big one for me now.”

In a statement released to the media, Caney Valley Public Schools officials characterized their decision as one made to keep the proverbial floodgates closed and denied the perception that it was a race-based move. According to the Oklahoma Department of Education, 43 percent of the students at the consolidated Washington County high school are Native American.

“Our decision to deny the request by this student and her family has nothing to do with the fact that this student is Native American,” Superintendent Ron Peters wrote. “Our decision is based upon our neutral practice of not allowing any student to adorn or decorate his or her graduation cap. We are concerned that if we grant this student’s request, then we have opened the door to virtually any other decoration.”

The Griffiths acknowledge that the district proposed a few alternatives to wearing the feather on Hayden’s cap, such as in her hair or as part of a piece of jewelry. However, those suggestions were inconsistent with the traditions associated with wearing eagle feathers, prompting the Griffiths to decline the offer.

The most recent copy of the Caney Valley High School handbook does not include language prohibiting the use of feathers or anything else not issued by the school district along with graduation regalia. A copy of the school’s graduation dress code, which the Griffiths had to sign and return to the school during the fall 2014 semester, also is silent on the issue.

A “graduation top 10 list” handed out by the senior class sponsor during the spring semester states in underlined text that hats may not be decorated at all, but calls out the use of glitter and paint rather than an additional item hanging from the mortarboard.

“If hear the word ‘decoration’ one more time, I think I’ll scream,” Lisa Griffith said. “You decorate a Christmas tree or a yard. An eagle feather is not a decoration. It’s sacred.”

Just as social media started the brouhaha, it has brought additional allies for the Griffiths, as Hayden and her mother have received emails, phone calls and letters of support from the Native American Rights Fund, Caney Valley High School alumni from across the country and elected officials with the Cherokee Nation, Delaware Tribe and the state.

The Griffiths plan to appeal to the Caney Valley board of education at its next meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 11.

Meanwhile, Hayden has already enrolled for the fall at Coffeyville Community College, where she will attend on a softball scholarship. She has not decided what course of action to take if ultimately denied the right to wear her eagle feather during commencement.

“I never expected it to get to this point, but this isn’t just about me,” she said. “If it were another student going through this, I’d be behind them 100 percent. I don’t want to ‘decorate’ my cap or put anything offensive on it. I just want to show what I’ve done and accomplished while honoring my culture.”


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