Some Oklahoma schools don't let students wear tribal regalia. Lawmakers could end that

When Muskogee High School refused to grant a Native American student her diploma because she attached an eagle feather to her graduation cap, the decision sparked outrage across the U.S.

Yet 27 years later, some Oklahoma schools still try to stop Native students from wearing items of religious and cultural significance on graduation day. Schools in Broken Arrow, Caney Valley, Latta, Moore, Norman and Vian have all faced pushback since 2015 from Native students and parents.

A bill that would prevent Oklahoma schools from banning tribal regalia gained initial approval Tuesday from the Senate Education committee, the first step before it can advance to a full vote on the Senate floor. But the proposal has met past resistance. Similar bills failed in 2020 and 2021.

“I want to be optimistic that we can get this done and move it along,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Michael Montgomery, R-Lawton.

A 'new day' in Oklahoma? Gov. Kevin Stitt personally invited tribal leaders to his inauguration. Many showed up

Several other Western states with large Native American populations — including South Dakota, Montana, Utah, California, Oregon and Washington — already have adopted their own versions of the law. Teachers and tribal leaders hope this will be Oklahoma’s year. More than 156,000 Native children are enrolled in public schools statewide.

“Graduation is an honor,” said Edwina Butler-Wolfe, who directs education programs for the Sac and Fox Nation in Stroud. “Sometimes these students are the only ones in their family that are going to graduate. If they want to wear regalia, they earned it. We don’t know how difficult it was from day to day, week to week for the student to even come to class.”

The controversy at Muskogee High School placed Oklahoma at the center of the debate in 1996. Danaj Battese Trudell said at the time she wore the eagle feather as a form of prayer. Many Native American cultures consider eagle feathers sacred. Federal law prohibits the possession of eagle feathers but makes exceptions for religious uses by tribal citizens.

Battese Trudell said the school was violating her civil rights by discipling her for wearing one. Her story circulated nationwide and landed her on “The Montel Williams Show.” School officials eventually relented.

Mobile betting: Proposal could open the door to sports books in Oklahoma

Four years later, lawmakers affirmed students’ rights in the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, which bars schools and other public agencies from infringing on the exercise of religion, with few exceptions.

Oklahoma lawmakers will consider whether to protect students' rights to wear tribal regalia at school events. Similar measures have failed in the past.
Oklahoma lawmakers will consider whether to protect students' rights to wear tribal regalia at school events. Similar measures have failed in the past.

But students and their families still encounter roadblocks at a few school districts every year, said Lucyann Harjo, a Navajo Nation citizen who chairs the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education. She also is an Native American education coordinator for Norman Public Schools.

When questions come up, Harjo tells students, parents and administrators that wearing eagle feathers and other forms of religious expression already are protected by law.

But she believes a standalone law would help school districts clearly understand students’ rights to wear tribal regalia and avoid costly court disputes that schools usually lose.

“It seems like we have this bill proposed almost annually, because we are still having families having difficulties,” Harjo said. “They have to fight for the right to do so.”

The most recent case to gain widespread attention happened in 2022, when a Otoe-Missouria and Osage student said she was told she could not wear an eagle feather at her Broken Arrow graduation ceremony.

A similar dispute in Vian prompted the Cherokee Nation to change its laws in 2019 so it could withhold funding from schools that don’t allow students to wear tribal regalia at important events.

At the same time, then-Attorney General Mike Hunter sent a letter to schools about religious rights covered by law, such as wearing eagle feathers.

Then-state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister also later wrote to schools, encouraging districts to examine their graduation dress codes policies and consult with tribal nations over the policies.

Both Hunter and Hofmeister have since left office.

McGirt v. Oklahoma: State launches new legal challenge tied to landmark ruling

Montgomery said past proposals to write protections for tribal regalia into state law stalled partly over concerns that they could open the door to other dress code exceptions.

He described Senate Bill 429 as targeted and specific. It would allow public school students to wear tribal regalia, which it defines as eagle feathers and plumes, beaded caps, stoles and other culturally significant garments and jewelry.

When the Senate Education committee considered the bill, it passed without any no votes or vocal objections.

“It’s an important thing for students to be able to represent their tribes,” Montgomery said.

Molly Young covers Indigenous affairs for the USA Today Network's Sunbelt Region. Reach her at or 405-347-3534.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma lawmakers could end school bans on tribal regalia