Reno-area Native students earn right to wear eagle feathers
This story was first published in the June 2017 edition of First Nation’s Focus.
RENO, Nev. — The Native American communities of Washoe County have been in an ongoing battle this spring for Native high school students to have the right to wear eagle feathers on their graduation caps.
“It is culturally insensitive to tell a student they can’t display their feather,” said Christina Thomas, former Paiute Language and cultural instructor for Washoe County School District, in a June interview with First Nation’s Focus.
The district’s previous long-standing policy of not allowing any decorations on caps at all was set to ensure students would not decorate caps with offensive language or gang-related symbols.
Further, according to the district, other WCSD concerns were that it would be seen as distracting or unfair if certain students were allowed special privileges, such as beading a cap or displaying the eagle feather.
According to an article in late May in the Reno Gazette-Journal, however, Washoe County Deputy School Superintendent Kristen McNeill’s office said in a memo that the right to wear eagle feathers is guaranteed under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Due to that, as well as in response to mountain concerns from Native students, the district announced at that time a temporary exception to the policy for graduation this year.
“It is very symbolic and a significant honor, not only for us, but for the future generations to get to represent our culture,” said Quecholli Nordwall, enrolled member of the Stillwater Shoshone Tribe and graduating senior at Reed High School, when asked by First Nation’s Focus to comment on the issue. “Native students want to graduate now. They want to get the opportunity to wear their feathers and represent their people.”
“Other generations can feel this sense of pride and get the opportunity to show their heritage and not be ashamed of it,” added fellow Reed High senior and graduate Jonas Grant III, enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “Wearing my eagle feather gives me a sense of pride; I get to represent my heritage.”
A deep-rooted history
More goes into a student being honored with an eagle feather than many people might think.
There is a blessing ceremony, in which a tribal elder blesses each feather individually for each student.
Reynelda James, Pyramid Lake Paiute elder and Deacon of Native Ministries, performed the ceremony this spring for the four Native graduates at Reed High School — Nordwall and Grant III, along with David Mahe and Nathan Cortez.
James prayed in her Paiute language and used sacred water from Pyramid Lake and sage sprigs to bless each feathers.
“Always have great respect for this feather — take care of this, it is yours,” said James. “It will always be with you. No one touches this. It is yours. Always remember where you came from. You didn’t do this alone; there are people who have helped you, and we pray for them too.
“You will reach your heights — know who you are.”
The ceremony was emotional and moving, bringing some graduates to tears — knowing the struggles Native people have faced in the past to get where they are today gave the graduates a sense of honor and pride.
Jon Lowery, a graduate from Reed High school in 2005, sang an honor song and spoke to the graduates at the ceremony.
“Wherever you go on your travels, take your feather with you,” said Lowery. “The eagle feathers are blessed and ready to be hung on your grad caps.”
Native voices are heard
All the hard work and persistence of these young men, and the community as a whole, did not go unnoticed.
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., personally sent a letter to Nordwall in response to his efforts to make this important issue a policy.
“I would like to commend you for your efforts on organizing students across the Washoe County School District to stand up against the ban of feathers on graduation caps,” Masto wrote in the letter. “Due to your hard work and persistence, Washoe County reversed its standing policy. Congratulations on ensuring the right to wear an eagle feather at graduation for your graduating class and the generations to come.”
For the Reed seniors — who all graduated June 12 — they know their efforts locally contributed to a much-larger goal.
“It feels pretty good that I’ll get the opportunity to represent my culture that was almost lost,” said Cortez.
Added Nordwall: “It is the greatest honor to be able to walk with my three brothers, representing our culture, and wearing our eagle feathers together.”
Jarrette Werk (Aaniiih) is a journalism student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who worked this summer for the Sierra Nevada Media Group as an intern, writing and taking photos for First Nation’s Focus.
USDA Rural Development Nevada State Director Phil Cowee said he is pleased to have the Washoe Tribe as one of 47 communities included in the national program.