An announcement made at the Warren County Board of Education’s May 14 meeting suggests that the county’s school system will reconsider a previous decision not to allow Native American students wear articles of honor — such as eagle feathers and beaded caps — during graduation ceremonies. Any change, however, will be too late for this year’s seniors. Warren Early College High School held graduation exercises last weekend, and Warren County High School’s commencement will be Saturday.
“I expect in the near future that there will be changes in policy to reflect the rights of all students while respecting the dignity of the (graduation) ceremony,” said board attorney Al Thompson.
The statement marked the latest step in a process that began in January when Warren County High School senior Zianne Richardson and Warren Early College High School senior Taylor Williams requested that Native American students be allowed to wear the articles of honor, expressions of both their cultural heritage and religious beliefs.
During the board of education’s April meeting, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ray Spain told board members that he discussed the students’ request with principals and guidance counselors at all three high schools in the Warren County Schools district. He added that he agreed with the opinions of school officials to not change school system policy for what is allowed to be worn during graduation. Spain said that he understood the students’ request, but after hearing the school administrators’ recommendations, the school system concluded that to allow anyone to wear articles beyond the cap, gown and related academic attire for graduation would set a precedent that would result in students wearing items that are too distracting.
At the time, Richardson said that local Native American students felt disrespected as a result of the decision and also because they felt that school officials described articles such as eagle feathers and beaded caps as decorations and distracting.
Spain told the paper that no disrespect was meant, and that school officials’ recommendations left no other options open for the wearing of articles of honor.
Also in April, 11-year-old Kaylee Evans spoke during a meeting of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Council questioning Warren County Schools’ decision and asking the council to adopt a resolution in support of the students.
Soon afterward, the Tribal Council adopted a resolution with plans that it would be presented to the board of education by Tribal Chief Dr. Ogletree Richardson.
Comments at last week’s meeting
Members of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe filled several rows of the Warren County Middle School multipurpose room, where the board of education meeting was held.
Zianne Richardson, dressed in traditional attire, wore in her hair the eagle feather she had hoped to incorporate with the tassel on her WCHS graduation cap. She also carried Taylor Williams’ Vance-Granville Community College graduation cap, which included both a tassel and an eagle feather, that she wore during the Henderson ceremony when she received her associate degree. Zianne’s sister, Evynn, wore traditional tribal regalia. Other members of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe wore a number of articles reflecting their culture, including jewelry and ribboned skirts.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Evynn Richardson said that students were told they could not wear eagle feathers or beaded caps because they were biased. She added that graduation mortarboards themselves are biased because they were developed from the Roman civilization.
Melissa Silver Richardson, a 1998 graduate of Warren County High School, said that she was “deeply concerned and disappointed” by the school system’s original decision.
“Are you teaching honor and respect?” she asked.
Richardson said that the wearing of an eagle feather in Native American culture is the equivalent of wearing a cross or star of David and just as sacred. She said that the feathers are used for prayer and in a number of ceremonies.
Richardson said that she was able to wear her eagle feathers when she graduated from East Carolina University in 2002, and asked the school system to consider the message it was sending about religious and cultural beliefs by not allowing high school students to do the same.
Earl Evans said that disappointment was not a strong enough word to describe the school system’s decision. He challenged the school system to consider the meaning of the words “Native American,” that the ancestors of all United States citizens who are not Native American actually came from other countries.
Evans said that when he was in school in Halifax County, other students made fun of him due to his culture. He challenged school system officials to consider how future generations will remember them.
“Will you be the type of ancestor that your descendants will be proud of?” Evans asked.
Each speaker’s comments drew loud applause. Some comments suggested that the board of education took a vote on the students’ request to wear articles of honor. However, Board Chairwoman Ebony Talley-Brame and Vice Chairwoman Barbara Brayboy, who is a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, said that such was not the case.
“It was not a decision by the board, and the board has not voted on this,” Brayboy said.
“We have not discussed it, but we will discuss it,” Talley-Brame added.
In presenting the Tribal Council’s resolution, Dr. Ogletree Richardson expressed appreciation to Warren County Schools for support during Indian Heritage Month and at other times.
The resolution, titled, “Request for reconsideration to support allowing Native students to wear eagle feathers and beaded graduation caps at high school graduation,” notes that graduation from high school is especially significant for Native American students, citing statistics that the graduation rate among Native Americans is 67 percent.
The resolution also states that “according to many native religious and spiritual traditions, eagle feathers are worn only in times of great honor and often to mark significant personal achievements; and … for many Native students, wearing an eagle feather in recognition of high school graduation is as significant as earning the diploma.”
The resolution further states that “… while many public high schools permit Native students to wear eagle feathers at graduation, recognizing that commencement ceremonies are an appropriate setting for Native graduates to wear an eagle feather with dignity, some schools do not allow it.”
As she presented the resolution, Richardson was accompanied by several members of the Tribal Council, other tribal officials and members.
Charles Richardson, Jr. said that his 30-year-old son graduated from Warren County High School and serves proudly in the United States Marine Corps.
“His feelings are still hurt that he was told on the edge of the stage (at high school graduation) that if he wore his eagle feather, he would not graduate,” Richardson said.
Haliwa-Saponi Vice Chief Jeff Anstead noted that Native American students wearing traditional attire were among those recognized by the board of education for their academic achievements.
“I witnessed something amazing. You recognized their accomplishments,” he said. “You should recognize their right as Native Americans (to wear eagle feathers).”
Anstead called for more government-to-government communication and cooperation between the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, Warren County Schools and board of education. He added that Native Americans lived in the area now known as Warren County thousands of years before it gained that name.
After the other tribal members accompanying Chief Richardson introduced themselves, Thompson said that the school administration made its original decision based upon policies that have been in place for many years.
“The board and administration have heard you,” he added, before suggesting that the school system would reconsider what, beyond the mortarboard and gown, will be considered appropriate attire for graduation. Thompson said that a decision may not be made in time for this year’s graduations, but something is expected in upcoming years.
Talley-Brame added that board would also discuss the matter.
Dr. Ogletree Richardson told the newspaper that tribal officials and members are optimistic about what Warren County Schools will decide.
“I felt that it was a very good meeting. We were well received,” she said. “I left with the idea that the board was interested in looking at the request that had been made.”