Lena’ Black v. Broken Arrow Public Schools

High school graduate Lena’ Black, an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and of Osage descent, filed a lawsuit on May 15, 2023, against the Broken Arrow School District for violating her rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. Black seeks restitution for emotional distress caused when school officials singled her out and attempted to take her sacred eagle plume by force, damaging the plume that she received in ceremony when she was three years old.

“My eagle plume has been part of my cultural and spiritual practices since I was three years old. I wore this plume on graduation day in recognition of my academic achievement and to carry the prayers of my Otoe-Missouria community with me,” said Lena’ Black. “The law protects my right to wear this eagle plume at my graduation, and school officials had no authority to forcibly remove it from my cap.”

Governor J. Kevin Stitt recently vetoed Oklahoma Senate Bill 429, passed by the state legislature with near unanimous bipartisan support to prohibit discriminatory graduation dress codes. The bill would have reaffirmed the rights of Native American students like Black to wear tribal regalia at graduations, a critical protection in the state with the second highest concentration of American Indians. Following his veto, Governor Stitt suggested this issue should instead be resolved at the district level.

Black is represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Pipestem Law, P.C. “We will hold the Broken Arrow School District accountable for its discriminatory actions,” said NARF Staff Attorney Morgan Saunders. “The Broken Arrow School District violated Ms. Black’s rights despite existing laws that should have ensured she was able to wear her eagle plume without incident.”

“This lawsuit demonstrates why these decisions cannot be left up to individual school districts,” said Pipestem Law Partner Wilson Pipestem. “Without clarity from the State, Native students will continue to be forced to seek justice in the courts after their rights have been violated and their graduation ceremonies are long since over.”

“I filed this lawsuit to ensure everyone understands the importance of items like my eagle plume, and to prevent schools from targeting Native students like me in the future. No student should face ignorance and discrimination in their school or their community,” said Black.

While traditions vary, members of many tribal nations wear specific clothing or objects, like eagle plumes, at graduation ceremonies to signify their academic achievement and in recognition of their spiritual and religious beliefs. Schools, school district leaders, educators, parents, students, and allies can learn more about creating inclusive graduation ceremonies and positive change at: https://narf.org/cases/graduation/.

Lawsuit Regarding the Right to Wear a Traditionally-Beaded Graduation Cap and Eagle Plume at High School Graduation

Here is the Complaint in Larissa Waln and Bryan Waln v. Dysart School District et al. in the District of Arizona.

More information and the press release can be seen here.

Letter from NARF, ACLU, and California Indian Legal Services Regarding Wearing Eagle Feathers at Graduation

Regarding the controversy at Lemoore High School initially forbidding graduating students from wearing an eagle feather on their graduation cap (article here). Letter here.

Typically, an eagle feather is given only in times of great honor – for example, eagle feathers are given to mark great personal achievement. The gift of an eagle feather to a youth is a great honor and is typically given to recognize an important transition in his or her life. Many young people are given eagle feathers upon graduation from high school to signify achievement of this important educational journey and the honor the graduate brings to his or her family, community, and tribe.

Bryce is an enrolled member of the Santa Rosa Indian Community of the Santa Rosa Rancheria, a federally recognized tribe. His Indian heritage comes from his father, who passed away when Bryce was three years old. Bryce’s feathers were gifted to him by his family specifically for this important occasion – his graduation from high school.

Finally, in deciding how to press forward in this matter, we ask Lemoore Union High School District to remember that “in our society and in our culture high school graduation is one of life’s most significant occasions.” Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 595, 112 S.Ct. 2649, 2659, 120 L.Ed.2d 467 (1992). “Graduation is a time for family and those closest to the student to celebrate success and express mutual wishes of gratitude and respect, all to the end of impressing upon the young person that role that it is his or her right and duty to assume in the community and all of its diverse parts.” Id. In light of the significance that the eagle feather has to Native American students, especially at graduation, we urge you to permit Native American students like Bryce Baga to express their religious and spiritual beliefs by wearing eagle feathers on their cap or gown.

Treaty Rights Challenge to Migratory Bird Treaty Act Prosecution Fails

Here are the materials so far in United States v. Crooked Arm (D. Mont.):

Crooked Arm Indictment

Crooked Arm Motion to Dismiss

US Response

Crooked Arm Reply

DCT Order Denying Motion to Dismiss

Possible Future Circuit Split re: Bald & Golden Eagles Protection Act

An interesting question is brewing in the Ninth and Tenth Circuits — whether the administration of the National Eagle Repository (created by the USFWS as a means to create an exception to the Bald and Golden Eagles Protection Act for American Indians) is unconstitutional as applied to American Indians.

Continue reading

Michigan Antique Dealer Sentenced for Selling Eagle Feathers

USFWS Press Release:

Thomas J. Hampton, 56, of Tekonsha, Mich., was sentenced today in federal court for illegally selling a Native American lance decorated with more than 30 golden eagle feathers. Previously, Hampton pleaded guilty on July 17, 2007 to a one-count federal felony indictment charging him with the sale of eagle feathers in interstate commerce, in violation of the Lacey Act. Today, U.S. District Court Judge J. P. Stadtmueller sentenced Hampton to two years probation and to pay a fine of $2,500.

Federal law prohibits the sale of eagle feathers regardless of the age of the feathers. Golden eagles, and bald eagles, are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Lacey Act prohibits the sale, in interstate commerce, of wildlife that has been taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of federal, state, or tribal law.

Hampton operates Hampton Historicals, an antique business based in Tekonsha. Hampton admitted that, in April 2002, he traveled from his home in Michigan to Columbus, Wis., to sell Native American artifacts to an art and antiques collector. Hampton brought several artifacts, including the lance, with him. Hampton sold the lance to the collector for $25,000.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents became aware of Hampton’s crime when, in the spring of 2006, the Wisconsin collector tried to resell the lance for $38,000. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Ed Spoon said, “A concerned citizen contacted us. That’s how the Service learned about this illegal attempt to sell the lance.” Agent Spoon said the citizen who reported the attempted sale was motivated by a desire to stop the illegal trade in artifacts decorated with protected migratory bird feathers. Agents subsequently executed a search warrant in Columbus, Wis., where they seized the lance, computer evidence and documents describing the lance’s history.

Further investigation led the agents to Hampton in Michigan. Agent Spoon said the nine-foot long lance, or spear, appears to date back to the late 1700’s. It is believed to be a Spanish lance that passed into Native American ownership in the early 1800’s. The lance was probably possessed by Comanche or Kiowa warriors in the Southern Plains region of the United States.

Agent Spoon said charges are expected to be filed soon against the collector who offered the lance for sale in 2006.

Assistant United States Attorney Daniel Sanders prosecuted the case for the United States Attorneys Office in Milwaukee.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 548 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.