Indigenous student wins fight to wear eagle feather at Tennessee graduation
Stephane WhiteEagle, father of student Canada WhiteEagle, holds an eagle feather while attending the Rutherford County Board of Education meeting, March 7. | Melanie Bender / People's World

MURFREESBORO, Tenn.—Across the country, Indigenous students are standing up for the right to express their heritage at high school graduation ceremonies, and Tennessee is no exception. In a city some 30 miles south of Nashville, student Canada WhiteEagle, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of western Oklahoma, won the right to wear an eagle feather on his graduation cap.

At a meeting of the Rutherford County Board of Education on the evening of March 7, Stephan WhiteEagle spoke on behalf of his son, arguing for his right to wear the sacred eagle feather. In support of his presentation, he referenced the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The meeting was well-attended by members of the local Indigenous community. After the presentation, the Native attendees left not expecting a decision that night. Later in the evening, however, word was received through social media that the Board had indeed reached a decision approving the wearing of the eagle feather.

This decision was prompted by a Board member, Tammy Sharp, who made a motion in favor of the WhteEagles’ request that unanimously passed. Sharp, a strong advocate of Native cultural and religious expression, also referenced that she was married to a tribal member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

Stephan WhiteEagle speaks to the Rutherford County Board of Education on March 7. | Melanie Bender / People’s World

The Native community was elated at the decision and the rapidity with which it was made.

The background to this story began on Jan. 4 with Stephan WhiteEagle sending an email to the graduation coordinator of Lavergne High School in Rutherford County, where his son is a student. Stephan was inquiring about the wearing of an eagle feather at graduation. The very next day, the coordinator emailed back stating that Canada would not be allowed to wear the eagle feather.

In the latter part of January, Canada contacted his assistant principal, who also said that the eagle feather would not be allowed. In early February, Stephan contacted the Rutherford County Schools Board’s legal department and was told the issue would be sent to the school district’s attorney.

At the same time, Stephan WhiteEagle had contacted another member of the local Indigenous community, Nioka Stafford, for assistance, as she had the same issue with her son initially being told by school authorities in September that an eagle feather would not be allowed at graduation. Stafford’s son attends a high school in Davidson County, part of Metropolitan Nashville.

Stafford’s case was resolved in January when, after considerable back and forth communication, she received letters both from her son’s high school principal and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools that her son would be allowed to wear an eagle feather at graduation.

In the WhiteEagle case, in early February, Stephan contacted the Tennessee State Board of Education for assistance and was told that the state had no jurisdiction in the matter and that the school district had the “final say.”

Subsequently, after more communication with county and state authorities, Stephan WhiteEagle was advised to fill out a request to speak on the issue at the next Rutherford County Schools Board of Education meeting of March 7. On March 8, the General Counsel for Rutherford County Schools, Monica Ridley, emailed Stephan confirming the Board’s decision to recognize his son’s right to wear the eagle feather at graduation.

Local Indigenous supporters of the WhiteEagle family gather at the Board of Education meeting on March 7. | Melanie Bender / People’s World

The backdrop of the right to wear an eagle feather is recognized and protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Free Speech Clause of the United States Constitution. The eagle feather is sacred to Indigenous people and is worn at appropriate times, including ceremonies of personal achievement, such as a high school graduations. Most states that have reservations and/or large Indigenous populations recognize the right to wear the eagle feather. The issue has not arisen in most Southern states.

Graduations are considered milestone ceremonies and are deeply significant to Indigenous cultures, as Native students have one of the lowest graduation rates of any demographic in the U.S. The eagle feather signifies the strength it took to reach this milestone and the resilience it will take to reach the next one. It has been said by many Indigenous leaders that the wearing of an eagle feather may be just as important as receiving the actual diploma.

It must also be noted that Rutherford County has also reached a type of milestone, in recognizing the eagle feather, considering that it is named for an infamous “Indian Killer” General Griffith Rutherford, who commanded one of several genocidal armies sent against Indigenous people in the Cherokee War of 1776.

Rutherford’s sentiments toward Native people were best expressed in his own words advocating for “the destruction of the Cherokee Nation.” His army destroyed 36 Cherokee towns, killed and scalped Cherokees for he “scalp bounty” offered by colonial governments, sold imprisoned Cherokees as slaves, and upon capturing a group of Cherokee women forced them into a house and burned them alive.

The recognition of the right to wear an eagle feather, it is hoped, will usher in a policy of justice toward Indigenous people residing in Rutherford County and contest the ignominious legacy of its pioneer forebears.

(Author disclosure: Stephan WhiteEagle had contacted this writer for legal assistance in the course of these events. This was provided by the sending of emails to the school district and state and county attorneys on the applicable law pertaining to the wearing of eagle feathers at graduation. I have known this family for decades and worked closely with the deceased Luther WhiteEagle, Cheyenne activist and spiritual leader, the grandfather of Canada WhiteEagle, on numerous Indigenous issues.)

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Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.