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San Antonio ISD Student Almost Stopped Wearing Feathers At Graduation

Hours before Young Women’s Leadership Academy student Kayla Price was to graduate, school officials told her she had to remove an eagle feather from her graduation cap. But Price, who hails from the Nakoda and Lakota indigenous peoples, was not going to take up the pen.

Price’s mother, Jennifer Falcon, said her daughter was pulled from graduation rehearsal by school officials on June 3, just hours before the actual ceremony. Price says those responsible were Delia McLerran, director of schools, and YWLA director Regina Arzamendi.

Price, who is also black, says she was chosen first by McLerran because her pen broke the rules of the graduation handbook, which dictate that the top of the cap, also called a mortarboard, cannot be decorated with objects that stick up in the air or hang down from the edge of the cap. Although she says she didn’t explain the full background, Price says she told McLerran the feather was important to her Indigenous culture.

“For me, I felt like it wasn’t something I had to get approved because it was cultural,” Price said. “It was embarrassing. No one wants to be chosen for just a cap.”

Price also wore a garnet and sweetgrass necklace collected by her great-grandmother in Montana, and beaded moccasins given to her by her aunt. The pearl necklace was approved before graduation, but at that time, Price says, she didn’t think to ask for the feather’s approval because it was just as important to her culture.

Feathers, Price says, are offered to Indigenous peoples as part of rites of passage.

Price says she asked Principal Arzamendi if she could hang the feather on her tassel as a compromise, but she was refused anyway.

Falcon says she spoke with McLerran just an hour and a half before graduation, and says the administrator told her she had to somehow prove the eagle feather was culturally significant while saying she was busy trying to arrange graduation.

“It’s anti-black, anti-indigenous racism that’s been going on for years,” Falcon said.

Falcon says she raised these issues before at school, saying white students were once allowed to dress up as Native Americans on Disney Day.

In March, Walt Disney World said it regretted allowing the “Indianettes” dance team to perform at Port Neches-Grove High School. The dance team visited the theme park and performed a dance using Native American stereotypes. Since the incident, protesters have attended board meetings in May in favor of changing the Native American-themed mascot of the Port Neches school.

Stephanie Fryberg, a University of Michigan professor and Tulalip Tribe member, told Politico in 2020 that these stereotypical portrayals can lead to an increase in suicidal ideation. Suicide rates among Native Americans were higher than any other race from 2011 to 2020, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Price was eventually allowed to wear the eagle feather in her cap. Falcon says the school finally moved on when she and Price’s father, Joaquin Gonzalez, arrived and spoke to the staff. They both said the school violated the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Gonzalez is a civil rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

YWLA is part of San Antonio ISD. The district has a policy that prohibits the district from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, gender identity, gender expression, l orientation or disability in its professional programs.

A district spokesperson reaffirmed this in an emailed statement regarding the incident.

“The District and the Young Women’s Leadership Academy support and respect all cultures, and the student fully participated in her graduation ceremony. Although the design of the student’s mortarboard does not meet District guidelines, a exception was immediately made by the district administration when we learned that the feather was being worn to honor the culture of the student. We want students of all cultures to feel included, and we work with students and their families when we learn how we can meet their demands.

Price says the moment was also empowering when it comes to seeing how authority figures attempt to further denigrate already marginalized communities.

“I really don’t want anyone holding me down,” Price said. “They’re not just using it to hold you down, but to knock you down.”