A Native American student will be allowed to wear an eagle feather on his cap during his high school graduation ceremony after reaching a settlement agreement with the Clovis Unified School District late Tuesday evening. Christian Titman, a member of the Pit River Tribe, filed a lawsuit and sought an injunction in state court after repeated requests to wear the eagle feather on his cap at graduation were denied by the school district.

Eagle feathers are considered sacred objects in many Native American religious traditions. They represent honesty, truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power, and freedom. Many Native Americans believe that as eagles roam the sky, they have a special connection with God. Often, Native American graduates receive an eagle feather from an elder or their community in recognition of educational achievements and wish to wear it during their graduation ceremony in order to honor their tribal religion, community, achievement, and traditions.

In an affidavit submitted to the court, Isidro Gali, Vice Chairperson of the Pit River Tribes said, “[t]he gift of an eagle feather to wear at a ceremony is a great honor given in recognition of an important transition and has great spiritual meaning. When given in honor of a graduation ceremony, the eagle feather is also recognition of academic achievement and school-related success. Eagle feathers are worn with pride and respect.”

“Although school districts across the country recognize the importance of wearing eagle feathers to Native graduates, there remains a minority that persists in erecting undue barriers. However, once the religious and cultural significance of wearing eagle feathers is understood by school districts, it is easy for schools to accommodate the practice at graduation ceremonies,” said Joel West Williams, Staff Attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, who represented Titman along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and California Indian Legal Services.

Matthew Campbell, another Native American Rights Fund Staff Attorney representing Mr. Titman said, “Importantly, this settlement requires the school district to remain engaged after graduation and discuss with Christian ways that it can improve communications regarding religious accommodations for future graduates. We are hopeful that future Native American graduates will not face the same obstacles.”

NARF has a long history of assisting students who are prohibited from wearing eagle feathers at graduation ceremonies due to narrow graduation dress codes. For more information, please contact Staff Attorney Joel West Williams at (202) 785-4166 or Staff Attorney Matthew Campbell at (303) 447-8760.

FRESNO—Today a Native American graduating senior at Clovis High School filed a notice of intent to file an emergency lawsuit to challenge the school district’s refusal to allow him to wear and display a small eagle feather during the graduation ceremony on Thursday, June 4. The student will only be able to wear the eagle feather, an item with religious and cultural significance, on his graduation cap during the ceremony if a court intervenes. The notice asks for an emergency court hearing on Tuesday, June 2, to decide the issue.

The student, Christian Titman, and his parents have repeatedly asked the school for permission for him to display the eagle feather, presented to him by his father as a mark of his academic achievements, during the upcoming graduation ceremony. However, district officials repeatedly denied their request. Christian, a member of the Pit River Tribe, would like to wear the eagle feather in his graduation cap as an expression of his religious and cultural heritage.

Eagle feathers are sacred to many Native Americans and are a symbol of significant accomplishment. State and federal law protect freedom of expression and recognize the religious significance of eagle feathers for Native Americans. California students also have broad free speech rights under the Education Code.

Other school districts, including in Lemoore and Bishop, have allowed Native American students to wear eagle feathers in their graduation caps as religious expression.

The student is represented by the ACLU of Northern California, California Indian Legal Services, and the Native American Rights Fund. The groups seek an injunction, which would allow Christian to wear and display his eagle feather in his graduation cap.

“Clovis already allows California Scholarship Federation and National Honor Society accessories during the graduation ceremony. It should be no different for Christian to wear a feather as a symbol of his academic accomplishment,” said Novella Coleman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

The emergency lawsuit notice comes after the groups sent a letter on May 19 asking the district to reconsider. In a May 22 response, the district lists “acceptable” accessories allowed at graduation and outlines that “students are expected to behave in a manner that respects the formality of the ceremony” and that the ban on accessories is designed to avoid “disruption of the graduation ceremonies.” The district’s formal refusal letter lists other items it bans, such as balloons and noisemakers.

“The district’s refusal to allow a small symbol of religious expression during the graduation ceremony is a misunderstanding of both the spirit and the letter of the law,” said Coleman. “The implication that an eagle feather with religious significance is unacceptable or disruptive signals a deep disrespect from the district.”

The lawsuit will outline protections in the California Constitution for freedom of religious expression and student free speech. A school’s refusal to allow Native American students to wear and display an eagle feather during graduation violates these provisions of the state constitution and the Education Code.

To view the article on the ACLU’s website or further information, click here.