Native pride is forbidden here

June 18, 2013

Ragina Johnson and Brian Ward explain why an incident at a high school graduation is one more example of discrimination against Native American culture.

IN A celebration of her heritage, a Native American high school student wore an eagle feather in her graduation cap on May 23 during the ceremony in Atmore, Ala. The school administration responded by fining her and her family $1,000 for adding this "extraneous item" to the traditional cap and gown.

Chelsey Ramer is a member of the Poarch Creek Band of Indians, which is the only federally recognized tribe in Alabama. The Poarch Creeks are one of the few tribes and nations east of the Mississippi River that did not face the brutal and deadly genocidal policy of "Indian Removal" from their lands. They have been living around the area now known as Atmore for almost 200 years.

Chelsey Ramer's act, although not analyzed as such in most news reports, ended up being a protest against a racist discriminatory policy and cultural bias by a private school administration. Unfortunately, it represents a broader epidemic of institutionalized discrimination against Native Americans across North America.

Chelsey Ramer wearing her graduation cap and eagle feather
Chelsey Ramer wearing her graduation cap and eagle feather

Ramer spoke to the Indian Country Today website about her actions:

About two months ago, me and the other Indian seniors from the graduating class asked our headmaster if we could wear the feathers on our caps. She told us "no," and that if we did, she would pull us off the field.

Ramer explained that soon after the meeting, the school tried to give students a contract to sign confirming that they would abide by school rules, and if they didn't they would not be able to participate in graduation. She said, "I never signed that paper."

On the day of graduation, she proudly wore the eagle feather as a symbol of honor for her achievement. Another Native American student wore a feather on their necklace but was not fined. Some of Ramer's friends, who originally planned to wear the eagle feather, felt the school pressure and opted to not face the possibilities of being reprimanded.

Ramer's former teacher, Alex Alvarez, who is also Native American and a family friend responded to the school:

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. The kicker is that this is a private school. Private institutions still have to follow federal guidelines, especially in regards to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

THE AMERICAN Indian Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1980, explicitly states:

That henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

Alvarez and other community and tribal members had protested the school board's decision to not allow graduation seniors to adorn an eagle feather to their outfits on graduation day. As a showing of open disrespect, the school board didn't respond to them by allowing for an open debate at the board meeting.

An op-ed Alvarez wrote and posted to the Atmore Advance prior to the graduation day read in part:

Long ago, and still a tradition today, we honor our people's achievements with feathers. They represent commitment, hard work and pride in tribal heritage. The eagle feather is sometimes seen as a religious object because it comes from the bird that flies the highest and therefore closest to God. While the school officials and board may think this is a small matter, to many, it is a form of oppression and refusing children a portion of their rich heritage.

This is not a new issue however, and similar conflicts can be found all over the country. Mykillie Driver (Assiniboine/Lakota Sioux) fought for her rights to wear a feather in Oregon last year and very similar to the Escambia Academy policy, the school had a "no adornment" policy in place. After meeting with the superintendent, she was allowed to wear her feather proudly...this is just one out of dozens of instances.

A small feather hanging from the graduation cap would not interfere with the traditional cap and gown. Some students will be adorned in extra banners and tassels from their school clubs and honors, what's different about them than the Native American students being allowed to wear a feather?

Ironically, the Poarch Creek Band of Indians has donated millions of dollars to the schools in the area, including this year, according to a report posted on June 6, because the tribe understands the extent that budget cuts are underfunding schools.

Poarch Creek Tribal Chairman Buford L. Rolin said when announcing this year's donation, "I believe knowledge that is gained through education is essential for children to reach their goals in life, and it will enable them to have limitless opportunities."

Ramer's family has responded by saying that they will pay the fines, but the fight is far from over. Chelsey Ramer has received support from all over the U.S. and Canada for her courage, and so far, the school board hasn't responded.

THE BLATANT discrimination against students of Native American descent is even more appalling as news emerged last week that the graduation rates among this group of students has dropped in the last couple years.

According to Education Week's annual report, Diplomas Count 2013, while the overall graduation rates in the U.S. has been gaining ground, "roughly 51 percent of Native American students in the class of 2010 earned a high school diploma. That's down from 54 percent in 2008, when graduation rates for the group reached its peak."

According to RiShawn Biddle, director of communications for the National Indian Education Association, "Native education is in crisis." Biddle said, "In many ways, our students are invisible. We're not the largest percentage of the population, so people forget for a moment that we're at the table."

One of the ways "invisibility" occurs is the result of downright discrimination faced by students like Chelsey Ramer when they want to be visible. From state and federal governments to school boards, a system of intertwined institutions is attempting to erase Native American people and their cultures. At the same time, that system is perpetuating racist stereotypes and caricatures.

More appalling evidence of how racist portrayals of Native peoples are allowed to flourish came last week when the U.S. Department of Education dismissed a case by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) that complained about the use of Native Americans as school mascots in K-12 schools. The complaint read in part:

Students in an American school who call themselves "Redskins," dress up like Indians, cheer using war chants or wear uniforms emblazoned with cartoon Indians may not intend to disavow history, but it certainly suggests they don't know much about the Dawes Act, or the Indian Removal Act, or the Trail of Tears, or Wounded Knee, or Indian boarding schools.

Although the MCDR provided research about how Native American's are impacted in academic settings by seeing discriminatory images of themselves in schools, the Department of Education dismissed the filing, claiming insufficient evidence. They also state that no "racial discrimination has occurred or is occurring."

We don't have to look far to see how indigenous people are presented in popular culture. Professional sports teams such as the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves and an endless list of high school mascots show us everyday what is thought of indigenous people: merely a people of the past and a mascot for the present.

The movie, The Lone Ranger, which is scheduled for release on July 3, has Johnny Depp playing the role of Tonto, the Lone Ranger's Native American sidekick, instead of a Native American actor. Imagine if the movie industry had a white actor play a black character--it's unfathomable.

Still we see the systematic stealing of land by corporations and governments in an effort to expand profit. Treaties of the past are relevant today as pipelines, mining corporations and more are encroaching into Indian Land.

Last year, even the United Nations investigated the U.S. and recommended that pieces of land should be given back to Native tribes in an effort of reconciliation.

The Indian Wars of the past might be over, but the issues faced by Native people today is a new form of warfare. Chelsey Ramer showed courage to stand up and wear an eagle feather in her graduation. Though her resistance is nothing new, it continues to bring to light the blatant racism and discrimination against Native Americans still happening today.

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