Graduation season is upon us once again. For most graduates this will be one of the most memorable moments of their life. The pride you feel is overwhelming and it’s understandable that some students might want to incorporate some of the heritage and culture into that moment. This is exactly what 17-year-old Chelsey Ramer wanted to do when she hung a single eagle feather alongside the tassel on her cap during her commencement ceremony, which took place on May 23rd. Chelsey is a member of the Poarch Creak Bank of Native Americans, located in Atmore, Alabama.
In an interview with Indian Country Today Media, Chelsey explained that the eagle feather is an important cultural and spiritual symbol. She asked school authorities if she could wear the feather during the ceremonies two months ago. When she was told no by her then-headmaster Betty Warren, she decided to wear it anyway and accept her punishment.
Escambia Academy High School, the private school where Chelsey attended, prohibits any “extraneous items” from being worn during graduation ceremonies, according to their dress code. Now her diploma and transcripts are being held until she pays a $1000 fine – a fine Chelsey says is worth every penny.
As a student of a private institution, you have to follow certain rules; rules that may differ from those of a public school. If you break these rules there will obviously be consequences, and I think Chelsey is very mature for facing them head on.
That being said, as a person with Native American heritage myself, I understand the cultural significance surrounding symbols like the one Chelsey chose to wear. Her choice also wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. Poarch Creek tribal council members requested to speak to members of the school board in order to discuss this issue numerous times.
I wonder what this school’s reaction would have been if a student wanted to wear a turban as a part of their cultural garb or a hijab. Chelsey wasn’t asking to wear green hair or a Mike Tyson face tattoo.The eagle feather is a religious symbol. Regardless of their status as a private school, officials are still obligated to follow federal guidelines, including those regarding the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
While Chelsey is okay with paying the steep fine, she was very clear about her feelings on the matter:
There is far too little American Indian culture left as it is. What is there should be protected, not called “extraneous” and denied.
“I feel like this wasn’t fair. It felt like it wasn’t legal. It really did hurt my feelings.”