• Wed, Jun 5 2013

Brave Student Happy To Pay $1000 Fine In Order To Wear Religious Symbol To Graduation

Chelsey Ramer OptimizedGraduation 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:

“I feel like this wasn’t fair. It felt like it wasn’t legal. It really did hurt my feelings.”

 

 There is far too little American Indian culture left as it is. What is there should be protected, not called “extraneous” and denied.

(Photo: YouTube)

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  • Ashley

    “There is far too little American Indian culture left as it is. What is there should be protected, not called “extraneous” and denied.”

    This. When white hipsters get upset that their war-bonnets-as-fashion-accessories are called out as offensive, they need to remember stories like these. Native Americans are real, living, breathing people with a culture that has been repeatedly denied to them by the white majority. We, as white people, do not get to take their culture away from them, then turn around and use their symbols in the name of fashion. It’s ridiculous, and Chelsey Ramer is so brave to stand up for her rights and for her culture.

    • Roberta

      This. If one more of my friends tells me that they are wearing it ironically, or that they want to “help” their culture, I will scream.

    • whiteroses

      I agree. Wearing a sacred symbol of another religion (notwithstanding the secularization of crosses) isn’t ironic. And it doesn’t help the culture. A war bonnet is meant to be earned over time, and it’s a sacred object. Buying a 2 dollar hot pink chicken-feather war bonnet doesn’t “help” anybody. There’s a reason why you will never see a true Native artist sell a war bonnet- because wearing them to a party so you can look cool is a level of stupid that’s really hard to comprehend.

      American Indians don’t need white people’s help in promoting their culture. Most do that just fine on their own.

    • Roberta

      This reminds me of an incident up here a few years back. There was a large regional powwow, and a few white Aboriginal Studies students showed up. This wasn’t an issue. However, they decided to show up wearing red war paint and other symbols that frankly they had no clue what they represented. Fortunately some of the elders took them aside and gave them an education.

    • Courtney Lynn

      Or “honoring” them! You really want to honor them, don’t fucking wear a bastardization of their sacred symbols.

    • Courtney Lynn

      Agreed 100%. Married to a Comanche man and the mother of Comanche babies! We need to preserve what little there is left. My husband’s tribe is struggling to remember their own language now.

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      Thank you for this. The war bonnet thing infuriated me.

  • Jessie

    While I generally view things like this with a “well, you knew the rules, this is your own fault and I have no sympathy for you” mindset, I have to agree that THIS is just plain wrong. The feather is part of her religious and cultural upbringing, not just a fashion statement, and for the school to call it an “extraneous item” (aka “accessory”) is wrong.

    I get the distinct feeling that a Catholic or Christian student would not have been denied the right to wear their crucifix, a Jewish student their Star of David, or that a Muslim sudent would be denied her hijab. Heck, even a Wiccan student wearing their pentacle would probably have been approved, and that’s a religion that most people still refuse recognize as anything but heathen nonsense (despite being an officially recognized religion for decades). Native Americans and their religious beliefs have been here a LOT longer than any of those other religions, so to be denied the right to represent her culture and upbringing like that is just wrong on so many levels.

    No, in this case, I think the school has it all wrong. I hope this girl and her family fight this somehow and get that ridiculous fine removed and her diploma released to her. It was a single, quite discreet feather that she was honored with as per her cultural beliefs, not three-foot, blue and purple liberty spikes in her hair.

    • Tusconian

      I agree, and I’m usually shaking my cane at damn kids and their refusal to follow dress codes. But it’s a cultural symbol, and it’s a graduation. It’s supposed to be a happy time to celebrate your accomplishments. My college graduation was full of people wearing culturally and socially important symbols, from subtle religious symbols like this, to HUGE cultural symbols such as hats/headdresses and leis, to sashes that represented ethnicity of Greek affiliation, to silly decorations referencing their major. High school graduations aren’t usually as over the top, but no one stopped us at the door for wearing cultural sashes or the blinged-out tassels we were specifically told not to wear.

      And how much you want to bet at least one male in her class was allowed to walk in shorts and tennis shoes, which is way more distracting than one feather.

    • Roberta

      I love it when people feel it’s ok to celebrate. It’s funny, I always thought graduation was for the students who worked their butts off for 4 years and get one day to celebrate and honour their culture/profession/whatever they want. Apparently it is about the administration not wanting anything different in the final pictures.

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      “While I generally view things like this with a “well, you knew the rules, this is your own fault and I have no sympathy for you” – I usually do too. I agree with you, I think there was some discrimination here and it went beyond the dress code.

  • LiteBrite

    “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.”

    Here’s my question. Was it the fact that she wore it on her graduation hat the issue or was it the feather itself? If it was the former, then I might see the school’s side of it. If it was the latter, then I have an additional question: what does the school consider “extraneous?” Because under such a vague definition, even a simple necklace with a Christian cross could be considered “extraneous.”

    • Roberta

      According to other articles, a few other Native American students wanted to wear a feather as well. Some decided to not rock the boat, and others wore a necklace instead and didn’t face any punishments. So I think it was about the hat itself. Still, it doesn’t pass the smell test to me.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      But see this is my point: It’s not about the feather. It’s about where she chose to wear it. If this truly was about honoring her heritage, why didn’t she wear it has a necklace?

    • Courtney Lynn

      Because that’s not how it’s worn. Who are you to speak about HER heritage?

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      I’m not speaking to her about her heritage. I’m speaking about the schools right to enforce the rules of it’s institution.

    • Courtney Lynn

      You said, “If this truly was about honoring her heritage, why didn’t she wear it has a necklace?”

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      Yes, because I had no idea that the where she wore the feather was an important part of the tradition. If it is, then I stand corrected. Most of my cultural symbols aren’t placement specific, and most of the ones that I’m aware of aren’t either. See my above comment about the other students.

    • Roberta

      Because she wanted to wear it properly. I don’t blame the others for wearing it somewhere other than their head. If I was ever in that position I would probably do the same. But asking her to not wear it properly is like asking a Hindu to wear her Bindi (the red dot that many wear on their foreheads) on her wrist instead.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      I have no idea what the proper way to wear this feather is. If it’s only meant to be worn on your head, and it violates cultural rules and laws if it’s not–totally understand. But that would mean that several other students chose to break a (very important) cultural tradition—which I suppose is possible, but it seemed odd to me.

    • Courtney Lynn

      Whether or not it should actually be worn on the head or as a necklace is up to them and nobody else. It’s THEIR culture.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      Oh for pity’s sake. I am not–nor is anyone else–telling this girl that she can’t wear this feather on her hat. Her school told her she was not allowed to wear it on her cap for graduation or she would face a fine. Period. I (again giving them the benefit of the doubt) am sure that they would have told me that I couldn’t wear a cross on my cap. And had I the result would have been the same.
      My point was: If it is about honoring her culture–and where she wears the feather isn’t an integral part of the honor or tradition–why didn’t she wear it on a necklace as other students did? If she did it as an act of civil disobedience–more power to her. I’m just raising the question.

    • Courtney Lynn

      You commented that other students were violating the tradition. I’m saying it’s their culture and if they choose to wear it around their neck, they can do that. Natives have been told for too long how to wear their own regalia. It’s not up to anyone else BUT THEM to speak about HOW their stuff is worn. Yet hipsters still get to parade around in “headdresses”.

  • Abendwind

    Good on you, Chelsey. You’re a brave girl and I hope your family is proud of you.

  • Lastango

    She’s not free to hijack the graduation ceremony. It’s everyone else’s ceremony too, and she needs to show some respect for that.

    • Ashley

      How is wearing a feather hijacking the ceremony? I doubt most people even noticed.

    • JLH1986

      I always think that in cases like this 1-it’s unlikely anyone even notice the feather, as I can’t even tell if it’s in the photo accompanying this story, and 2-the school made this bigger than it should have been. No one would even be discussing it if the school had accepted it’s a religious symbol. I doubt they told people to remove their cross necklaces and/or Jewish star necklaces. The school showed no respect for the ceremony by asking someone who wasn’t the cultural norm for the area to forgo symbols of her religion. As the blogger pointed out, she didn’t ask to wear bright green hair or tattoo her face. She asked to place a feather in her tassle. Had she not been respectful and asked before hand I wonder if school officials would have noticed.

    • Courtney Lynn

      No. People need to show respect for a culture that was stolen from under its people. Period.

  • AlexMMR

    Were others allowed to wear crosses on necklaces?

  • whiteroses

    I have Native ancestry, and the blood is so diluted that it wouldn’t make a difference- but I see Chelsey Ramer’s point completely. As far as I can tell, it’s no different when my husband freaks out over hipsters having ta moko (Maori facial tattoos- or “moko” when they’re applied elsewhere). He’s 1/8th Maori- and it still drives him apeshit when people use moko as funky body art. It’s purpose and applications are sacred to Maori tribesman, and ta moko is an ultimate expression of identity.

    I don’t see anything different here. She’s expressing her identity, and it’s not as if she wanted to graduate wearing a thong bikini.

    • once upon a time

      Oh my gosh, I see white guys with Maori/tribal tattoos all the time. I’m a Pakeha, but it drives me crazy as well!

    • whiteroses

      My husband is extremely white with blonde hair and blue eyes- doesn’t look like he has a trace of Maori blood in him. But he gets genuinely offended, because his great-grandmother practically raised him and drilled into him that you don’t get moko unless you have a damned good reason- and it’s not because you think they look cool. In a way, it’s kind of funny, because if he LOOKED Maori nobody would say a word to him about it.

    • once upon a time

      Oh yeah, I’m talking about white guys I know (and I know they don’t have a drop of Maori blood) getting tribal tattoos, not just random guys I see on the street. One of my best friends is a blond haired, blue eyed Aborigine, so I totally get that looks can be deceiving.

    • Yves

      You don’t know, they may have that heritage as well. Just because someone “looks” completely white, or some other color, doesn’t mean they are. I’m 1/8th Algonquin, and look totally white (pale, blue eyes, curly golden brown hair.)

      Although, yes, many people are just idiots who get tattoos that they think look “cool,” and for no other reason.

    • whiteroses

      True- which is why my husband inevitably starts a conversation with them about it. There are actually two forms of the art: moko, which is meant solely for the use of Maori tribesman, and kirituhi. Moko in its truest form is chiseling into the skin, not tattooing, and involves a process of consent, geneology and history. It’s also earned, much like a war bonnet. Kirituhi is done with needles and ink, and anyone can get it.

      You can assume that someone doesn’t necessarily have that heritage when they have no idea what moko even means. For Maoris, moko is sacred.

  • Nick

    We the Natives of this land been wearing feathers long before there was a white’s man foot prints on this land of ours. Ever look at United States flag pole, what do you see at the top? An Eagle sitting on top,that’s where we at folks.First peoples of this lands.

  • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

    She knew the rules, decided to break them, and is facing the consequences. How is this news? Good for her for deciding to face the consequences and not bemoan them, bad for Mommyish for continuing to post stories about how rules and laws that they don’t agree with shouldn’t exist.
    I do wonder why she didn’t wear the feather in a less obvious place and if other students were prohibited from adding signs to their caps or crosses. If they were allowed to, then yes this is discrimination. If they weren’t—see above point about break the rules
    And as for the hijab argument–Unless this young lady was(and is) wearing an eagle feather every day as part of her faith–it doesn’t really hold water.

    • whiteroses

      It’s a big deal because they’re fining her a ridiculous amount of money for a really, really stupid reason. Eagle feathers are given as a sign of achievement. It makes sense she’d want to wear one for her graduation. I received a piece of jewelry for mine- it’s no different.

      As a student and then as a teacher, I’ve seen a lot of stupid behavior at graduations. Air horns, people screaming and crying like fools, silly string, glitter, confetti, people bringing their pets, the list goes on. A feather, especially if it’s a religious symbol, doesn’t really compare.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      I’m with you on the stupid behavior at graduation…those air horns make me want to cry. But–again–she knew this rule existed. She knew what the consequences were. She chose to break it and face those consequences. I truly applaud her for her convictions. I don’t applaud people saying the school is wrong for enforcing the rule. Wrong for having it? Maybe. But they are not wrong for treating her like anyone else who breaks the rule.

    • whiteroses

      No, they aren’t wrong for treating her like anyone else. But a thousand dollars and withholding her diploma until she pays up because she wanted to wear a feather?

      As another commenter said, something in this story doesn’t pass the smell test.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      I think it does. Only because I am giving everyone in this story the benefit of the doubt.
      That the student did petition the school, and that they said no. (for one). My guess is that when they said no they also said “If you do x y will happen.” And even if they didn’t I’m guessing it’s in their handbook somewhere.
      Now, if they just said no and didn’t tell her—or that infractions in the past were not treated this way–then this is crazy. But I have no proof of that, and until I do, I choose to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

    • Courtney Lynn

      The difference between a hijab and a feather is that a hijab to it’s wearer MUST be worn daily. Feathers in Native cultures are often ceremonial, so she was right to wear it for a ceremony. You can’t compare a hijab to a feather other than the religious aspect.

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      I want to point out that my comparison to the hujab was only meant to compare the importance.

    • Courtney Lynn

      I know what you meant by it and I have no problem with your comparison at all. I think the person who replied had it mixed up, though. Apples and oranges, I think.

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      I applauded her for paying the fine. I also never said the rule shouldn’t exist. The writers at Mommish often have differing views (I think this is the beauty it).

      The eagle feather is something earned. You don’t wear it after puberty or after marriage, you earn it when your tribe says you’ve earned it. In this tribe’s case she earned it after graduation. You don’t have to wear a religious or cultural symbol everyday for it to be legit. Even member of her tribe came out to as for an exception to be made.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      I apologize if I misinterpreted your meaning, but your article made it seem that you thought the rule itself was wrong.
      For the record, I’m not trying to downplay the significance of the eagle feather. I am not saying that a religious symbol has to be worn every day to be legit.
      I am saying this:
      There is a rule that exists at this school. This girl petitioned–several times–to wear this important feather at her graduation. She was denied. She chose to wear it anyway, and pay the fine. Good for her for doing what she believes to be right and still facing the consequences. You can argue that the rule is wrong, but you can’t argue that they’re wrong for enforcing it–which to me how the article reads.
      It angers me that people think institutions (legal or otherwise) are bad for enforcing a rule that exists. They’re not. They’re doing their job. If you think the rule is wrong–fight it! Get the rule changed so that these people don’t have to enforce it.
      You don’t have to like the rules in life, but if you choose not to live by them, you choose to face the consequences of that decision. Owning that is a more powerful statement against the rule then complaining about the punishment that you willingly brought on yourself.
      Write articles that fight against–and try to change–the rules not the punishments

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. I wasn’t trying to say that the school itself is inherently bad. Not at all! I commend this girl for doing what she thought was right and I respect her for agreeing to pay the fine. My point was that I was disappointed that the school wasn’t more willing to work with her and students like her. I can;t knock the school for enforcing a rule but I feel that I am within my rights to question their not having more enlightened set of rules.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      Oh absolutely. And if that’s the goal–let’s all question the rule–that’s awesome. Like I said I get cranky when people think that institutions are wrong for enforcing rules–not when people questions the rules themselves.

    • Courtney Lynn

      Thank you for the clarification. I can agree with that.

  • Simone

    I dunno, I guess if colonial America hadn’t done its damndest to eradicate the Indian peoples from the land it might be a different story. If you move in, take over a country, introduce its first peoples to diseases they’ve never had, pass on your accumulated wealth of dangerous social pathologies like excessive alcohol consumption, try to turn them into Christians, and then herd the resulting shattered people into reservations and then blame them for not doing well, I think you can shut the heck up if a member of that group wants to display a cultural symbol at an important time in their lives.

  • Tsitika

    Wow. Even if you went with the “she knew the rules, she made her bed” argument, that fine is incredibly out of proportion to the “offense”.

    That said, I work as an usher for convocation at a large university, and the university bends over backwards to make graduation all about the grads. If the grads (or their families) want something, they get it – sometimes even if it breaks our rules. All the emphasis is on the grad, because the grad spent four years working hard to achieve this milestone. Sure, this is high school, but it’s still a big deal. And…it’s a feather. It’s not hurting anyone. They don’t have anything bigger to get angry about?

  • lanna

    The school is a private Christian school – perhaps they viewed the feather as a religious symbol and didn’t want symbols of other beliefs there? I don’t know that, just throwing it in as a possibility.

  • chickadee

    I understand the school’s policy regarding extraneous items at graduation, since it’s simply easier to ban everything than to try to police students’ choices on a case-by-case basis. I am proud of this student for wanting to include a symbol of her heritage, but more proud of the fact that she did it and accepts the punishment for having done so. It’s a great example of civil disobedience.

  • Daisy

    This is crazy. At my university graduation last week, there were a number of Native students wearing traditional feathers, beads, or headdresses. In fact, students who graduated from a particular FNMI program were *presented* with eagle feathers by an elder. We also had an elder give a quick speech in Blackfoot and sing a special honour song for the ceremony. The university isn’t officially affiliated with Native culture in any way, but there is a significant Native population in the area, so we honour that. Which just seems like an obvious thing to do–I’m flabbergasted that someone would be punished for it!

  • LET

    I guess I’m a little confused about why someone would attend a private school if they don’t agree with the school’s religious leanings. I’d be a lot more outraged if this were a public school.

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      Agreed, except in this regard the school is still bound under certain laws protecting religious freedom. The law is on this young women’s side.

    • LET

      Fair enough, but I still feel like the fact that this is a private, Christian school changes the story. Just because something is within my legal right doesn’t mean I should do it. Personally, I feel like she should have been able to wear the feather, I don’t think anyone would have noticed & it would’ve meant a lot to her. However, the school wasn’t comfortable with it & instead of respecting that the school is a private, Christian school & being discreet like some of the other students, she chose to flaunt it. Honestly, I really can’t get behind that (and Im an atheist).
      Like I said, I would feel differently if it were a public school, but I’m having a harder time drumming up sympathy for someone who willingly attends a religious institution & is then upset that the institution doesn’t want to support other religion’s practices.

    • JJ

      You wrote, “Just because something is within my legal right doesn’t mean I should do it.” I’d say that while, yes, private schools (religious or not) are within their rights to prohibit some expressions or symbols of other religions/cultures, that doesn’t negate the students’ rights to practice and take pride in their respective cultures. It’s not the students’ responsibility to protect the school’s chosen creed; it’s the school’s responsibility. If the administration isn’t willing to do that, then they have every right to deny admission to students of different faiths. (Which is equally discriminatory and IMO just as wrong as what happened here, but if the school wants things a certain way, it’s up to the school, not its students, to make that happen.)

      And in reply to your comment about “someone who willingly attends a religious institution” having no right to protest the oppression of their religious practices: have you considered that not every student attends because of their religion? I say this as a graduate of a private, Catholic, all-girls high school where much of the student body (I’d say 30-40%) was not Catholic but attended because it was a much better education and preparation for college than any of us would get in the local public high schools. And while there were required religion classes and required in-school Mass, no one was shouted down for expressing another opinion or for bypassing the communion lines – not even me, when I left the Church at 15. We celebrated Catholic holidays, yes, but also Diwali and Chinese New Year. And having experienced firsthand the coexistence of institutionalized religious faith and institutionalized religious acceptance, I don’t buy the argument that religious affiliation gives the school grounds to ban religious expression; it smacks to me of the all-too-prevalent employment of religion as an excuse for prejudice.

    • Courtney Lynn

      Many Native cultures HAVE incorporated and adopted Christianity. My husband’s tribe, the Comanche Nation, is one of them. They still maintain their old traditions, though. So they may not disagree with the Christian aspect at all, but want to maintain their culture as well. Not even 100 years ago, Native children were thrown into Christian school, stripped completely of their traditions and their language and forced to assimilate. I can understand wanting to keep some tradition alive.

    • LET

      In other words, this is a cultural practice & not a religious one , as the article states?
      I would still have to know more specifics about the school & it’s beliefs before I rendered judgment, and I still feel private schools have more leeway to make these kind of value judgments, personally. I can’t imagine this has never been an issue in the past and, again, why give your money to a school that doesn’t support your beliefs?

    • Courtney Lynn

      It’s both cultural and religious. It’s not as simple as that for some Natives. It is often incorporated into their old ways. For some, they still simply maintain their traditional beliefs and some of them are not Christian. I have no idea what Chelsey Ramer believes, but we can’t rule out that she isn’t Christian.

    • LET

      I don’t doubt that she could be Christian, but the school still clearly has some beliefs that are different than hers.

    • Courtney Lynn

      Why do you doubt that? My husband is Native and Christian and so are most of the other Comanche we know, most of them lifelong members of the Methodist church. Having differing beliefs does not mean you disagree on some religious views. For example, I can believe in the Trinity while another Christian may not and at the same time, we both agree that Mary was a virgin.

    • LET

      I said I don’t doubt it. The fact that they have differing philosophies is made quite clear by the fact that she believes the feather is appropriate whereas the school doesn’t, so I don’t really see the need to debate that further, but you’re certainly entitled to see it differently.

    • Courtney Lynn

      Misread the part about doubting. I still the fine is extraneous, but that’s me.

  • crackman!!!!

    She should have worn 2 feathers just to piss em off !