OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Oklahoma’s state superintendent sent out a reminder to all public schools in the state to ensure Native American students’ rights are protected when it comes to their freedom to wear traditional regalia at graduation.
For the third year in a row, Joy Hofmeister sent a letter to superintendents reminding them that federal and state law backs students’ right to spiritually express themselves at the ceremony.
“In general, our districts need to be working with their tribal partners, and that is actually part of federal law and recommending that the conversation around graduation and being culturally sensitive to sacred traditions is a part of that,” said the Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction. “The other piece is part of the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act.”
In her bulletin dated on Jan. 24, 2022, Hofmeister said, “The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) directs the collaboration of local education agencies and tribal educational representatives ‘to meet the unique educational and culturally related academic needs of Indian students; to ensure that Indian students gain knowledge and understanding of Native communities…traditions, and cultures; and to ensure that teachers, principals, other school leaders, and other staff who serve Indian students have the ability to provide culturally appropriate and effective instruction and supports to such students.’”
She also referred to a 2019 letter that former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter wrote to her, in which he said the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act “generally requires public schools to permit Native American students to engage in the spiritual practice of wearing eagle feathers to important events, such as graduations, even if this requires a religious exemption to an otherwise generally applicable rule.”
5-8-19 AG Mike Hunter Letter by KFOR on Scribd
KFOR reached out to several metro districts for reaction on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Yukon Public Schools said, “This has not been an issue in our district. Yukon Public Schools works in collaboration with our District Native American Coordinator to ensure the guidance set forth by our state tribes are followed and respected.”
A representative for Moore Public Schools said, “Over the past two years, we have allowed Eagle Feathers to be worn on mortarboards as an expression of religious beliefs. Additionally, we have honored requests for Native American students to adorn their mortarboards with culturally significant beads.”
An Oklahoma City Public Schools spokeswoman pointed us to a part of their Policy I-20-R1, which states, “Students are permitted to wear religious decor to graduation pursuant to the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, including but not limited to eagle feathers worn by Native American students.”
“This is about respect for our heritage of our Native American youth,” Hofmeister told KFOR. “It is also about religious freedom, and we are proud of all of our Oklahoma graduates, particularly this time we know is so important with our native youth.”
Back in 2019, the Latta School District in the Ada area made national news after telling a senior it would be against the dress code to wear his Chickasaw Nation honor cord and his beaded cap and feather while walking across the stage.
Hofmeister told KFOR since she’s been issuing her annual letter in 2020, she hasn’t seen any problems with compliance from school districts.