Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Native American student denied diploma for wearing eagle feather

By Marcus Hondro

A 17-year-old student from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama is being denied her high-school diploma after wearing an eagle feather at her graduation. Chelsey Ramer was told to get her diploma and transcripts she must pay a fine.

Of $1,000.

Escambia Academy High School in Atmore, Alabama, a private school, has a "no extraneous items" policy which stipulates students must wear uniforms without additions. Ramer and the other 3 members of the Creek Indian band in the Class of 2013 felt wearing a feather at their May 23 commencement ceremony to represent their heritage would be a positive thing and decided to take up the issue with the school.

“About two months ago, me and the other Indian seniors from the graduating class asked our headmaster if we could wear the feathers on our caps,” Ramer told Vincent Schilling of the Indian Country Today Media Network. Not only did her headmaster, Betty Warren, deny their request, but she sent around a contract for all students to sign saying they would adhere to the rule or face the fine and other disciplinary action.

Ramer didn't sign the agreement and wore the eagle feather, she said with pride. Two of the other students did not wear any extraneous item because they feared the fine while one wore a small feather on a necklace and was not disciplined.

"Give a child an eagle feather"

A former teacher and member of Ramer's band, Alex Alvarez, said he and others from the band tried to speak to Warren about the issue weeks before the graduation and she wouldn't see them. He said to Ramer, and all Native American students, the eagle feather is about pride and spirituality and he's not happy Ramer was put into a position where she had to break rules to celebrate who she is.

"I think this is ridiculous. If they took the time to understand and respect the differences in individuals, this would have never happened,” Alvarez said. “We don’t have much left as Indian people, to give a child an eagle feather as an achievement should be adhered to."

He added that being a private school should not matter because "private institutions still have to follow federal guidelines, especially in regards to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.”

School headmaster fired

The story takes an additional twist as when Ramer went to speak to Warren about her diploma and transcript - she said her family intends to pay the fine - she discovered that Warren had been fired. She wasn't given the reason why and does not know if it had anything to do with the issue.

The interim headmaster, the school's basketball coach, David Walker, told Ramer last week that he wants to give her the diploma and transcripts but cannot do so until the school's board makes a ruling. Ramer, who watched seniors wear an eagle feather to ceremonies in the past, said she waited to wear one herself and has no regrets.

“I feel like this wasn’t fair, it felt like it wasn’t legal,” she said. “It really did hurt my feelings. I have watched others wear it and I looked forward to it my whole four years there.”

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