Last month, a 19-year-old Native American high school student at J B Pennington High School in Blountsville, Alabama was told he couldn’t wear an eagle feather if he wanted to graduate. When Sky Walkingstick, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, explained it was a demonstration of his beliefs protected under federal law, he was still told by Assistant Principal Steven Bryson, a former history teacher, and another instructor, William Smitherman, who teaches government, economics and 9th grade history, to remove it.
“I was just starting the graduation ceremony and I had my eagle feather in my cap, it was hanging from the tassel. I was walking towards Mr. Smitherman he saw my eagle feather and stopped me. He started shaking his head no. He said you cannot wear that during the graduation,” said Walkingstick.
“I asked him why not and he said, ‘you just can't.”
Walkingstick, who has been a men’s traditional dancer since age 5 and a fancy dancer for about a year says the eagle feather is part of his heritage, his religious beliefs and achievements. He said he tried to explain that the wearing of a feather was also protected, but he was shut down.
“I started to get upset and tear up, but I held it in. I put my eagle feather back in my car. When I came back Mr. Smitherman and Mr. Bryson told me again,” said Walkingstick.
Walkingstick was surprised two educators with backgrounds in teaching history and government aren’t aware of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Walkingstick complied during the May 23 graduation ceremony, even though he didn’t want to. “I didn't want any trouble nor did I want to cause a ruckus… I went ahead with graduation with my feather in my heart and my head held high.”
His mother, Hollye Walkingstick, was frustrated by the situation. “You would think of all people, that history teacher would be more aware. It made me very mad,” she said.
“I asked Mr. Bryson ‘can you tell me why he can't wear it?’ He said, ‘the main reason is that all of the kids are required to look the same. I told him there was no dress code the kids had to sign and no one was told they had to wear certain things. I told him you would not tell a Christian person to remove their cross or a Jewish person to remove their Star of David. And I can guarantee you that if you had a Muslim child in your school you would not tell her to remove her head covering. You could not do that by law.”
She explained that Sky respected Bryson’s wishes because he is an elder and the assistant principal. “But this is a school, you could turn this into a real teaching opportunity,” Hollye told Bryson.
Hollye said she and the teachers argued that other students—honor students—wore adornments in their tassels. She also said the school accepts funding for having minority students, but doesn’t support their beliefs.
“My daughter asked Mr. Bryson if he understood what the eagle feather meant and he said ‘Oh yeah, I know you all smoke peace pipes and what you smoke in them.’ This is a former history teacher who is now the vice principal and the history teacher was standing right next to him,” Hollye said. “This is unreal to me.”
J.B. Pennington High School principal Brian Kirk said the school has no comment on the issue and referred ICTMN to the Blount County Board of Education Superintendent Jim Carr, who has not returned several calls.
This isn’t the first time a graduating senior has taken flack for wearing an eagle feather at graduation from an Alabama school. Chelsey Ramer, a Poarch Creek Band of Indians student who recently graduated from Escambia Academy in Atmore, Alabama faced a similar situation. She did wear her feather though and nearly had to pay a $1,000 fine for doing so. (Related story: “Poarch Creek Student Not Required to Pay Fine, Receives Diploma”)