High School graduations, the transition from student to a member of productive society, is a time-honored tradition with ceremonies and pageantry. It is common for students to customize and modify their adornments in order to reflect the values and traditions which best suit them. Many make political or cultural statements, others religious, in their attempt to stand out from the crowd, or to state something they need to say. Needless to say, when one high school excludes one group of students from such expressions but not others, trouble starts.
Escambia Academy High School in Atmore, Alabama recently held its ceremony for the graduation class of 2013. There was, however, a notable change in the adornment and customization to the graduates’ gowns this year. As Atmore has a sizable Native American population from the Poarch Creek Band, it was common for graduates to wear an eagle’s feather as a symbol of pride for the students. This has been observed for years, alongside the crosses, cap slogans, and other such adornments. This year, however, the school selectively targeted the Native students, telling them if they were to wear the, by now, traditional feather, they would not be given their diplomas and would be fined $1000 each. Of the four Native students, two opted out of wearing the feather, one wore it on a necklace, and one, Chelsey Ramer affixed to her tassel.
Ms. Ramer has now had her transcripts held hostage until she agrees to pay the fine, a penalty not forced upon the other student who also wore a feather nor on the students of previous years who also wore feathers. There are also no reports of penalties being applied to students who used religious or political adornments either. This, instead, appears to be less a school policy being enforced than just plain old-fashioned racism.
While the school is a private institute, it still must adhere to federal laws. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 expressly denies the ability for groups and organization to “prohibit the use and possession of sacred objects necessary to the exercise of religious rites and ceremonies.” A graduation ceremony in one form or another is found in almost every culture, going back centuries, so this would appear to apply. For the school to specifically target one group of students, based on their cultural heritage, is illegal.
When news agencies began to probe the school for information, however, they were in for a shock. The school administrator who made the decision to discriminate against their native students, Betty Warren, was removed from her position without notice, leaving an interim administrator in place without the authority to overturn the previous decision. Alex Alvarez, a former teacher of Ms. Ramer, reported to Indian Country:
I think this is ridiculous. If they took the time to understand and respect the differences in individuals, this would have never happened. We don’t have much left as Indian people, to give a child an eagle feather as an achievement should be adhered to.
Discrimination against those of Native heritage is widespread across this nation. To witness it in its singularity is, however, remarkable. The history of such discrimination has resulted in unique socioeconomic issues which continue to plague those in the community. For centuries, Native American heritage was something hidden, something shameful for many people. Now it is considered an honor; in fact, people now look for any signs of native ancestry. It even entered into the 2012 Massachusetts’s senate race when then-Senator Scott Brown decided to make an issue of Elizabeth Warren’s Native American ancestry, claiming the power to analyse a persons genetic ancestry by merely looking at them.
Escambia Academy should be ashamed of itself for targeting those of Native American heritage in this fashion. If this were a prohibition against the wearing of a rosary or a cross, you can bet money that the religious right would be jumping all over this, claiming it was an attempt to turn Christians into the oppressed minority. Of course in this case, it is an oppressed minority, one which has faced hundreds of years of systemic discrimination.
To penalize Chelsey Ramer is morally wrong, ethically bankrupt, and illegal. Escambia Academy needs to do the right thing by this charming little girl.
Here’s the video: