A public high school in Utah told a Native American student to remove her culturally symbolic feathers at graduation before she crossed the stage to receive her diploma.
Tasheena Savala, a Navajo woman who graduated from Lehi High School last month, had to remove the symbol because of a school rule prohibiting decorations on caps. (The whole situation is all the more symbolic since Lehi is the name of a Mormon prophet and the religion itself has targeted Native Americans historically and more recently.)
Savala simply wanted to display a sign of respect for her culture but was blocked by a teacher who noticed the three feathers backstage. The teacher told her to remove them, which she did, but not without disappointment due to her inability to represent her culture.
“This is how I was expressing myself. To me, my eagle feathers were just as important as my cap and gown,” says Savala.
They also wouldn’t have impeded any part of the graduation ceremony.
The school has since issued a non-apology, suggesting that the teacher was ignorant about the cultural aspects of the feathers and simply following orders that were far too broad… while also blaming Savala for not going through the proper process to get her feathers approved.
… Lehi High School sent notifications out to their graduates and parents, held an informational assembly explaining expectations for the formal graduation, prior to the May graduation ceremony. Any exception for graduation procedures were addressed to administration by students or parents prior to the graduation. The school was not aware of this request. There was an oversight or misunderstanding by the teacher or student that prior notice/approval was not made. The teacher was caught off guard seconds before the graduate was to make her way out of the tunnel. The teacher was following the set procedure by the school, that no cap was to have decoration on it…
We will continue to study and refine our graduation procedures and processes, set clear expectations for notification to the school for students and parents who are seeking unique circumstances outside of school requirements.”
That may be helpful to Savala’s younger brother, who’s set to graduate next year, but it doesn’t undo what happened. A day meant to celebrate her accomplishments turned into a day where she had to defend her heritage.
You have to wonder how a large public school district can still remain unaware of why a student might want feathers on her cap to the point where staffers weren’t informed about the possibility ahead of time. No wonder that, instead of asking her about it, the teacher just stuck to the rules and made everything worse.
There are a lot of people to blame for what happened. Savala isn’t one of them.