A Navajo student had eagle feathers on her graduation cap. Her Utah school told her to take them off — or she couldn’t walk across the stage.

(Photo courtesy of Tasheena Savala) Pictured is Tasheena Savala with leis and decorations added after her graduation ceremony on May 29, 2019.

Most of what Tasheena Savala wore to honor her Navajo heritage was covered by the billowy folds of her graduation gown.

Under it, she had on a traditional velvet dress that her grandmother had sewn for her and a turquoise and silver belt of her mom’s. On her neck, she layered tribal necklaces. On her feet, she slid on moccasins.

Each carried meaning, but Savala wanted to wear at least one thing from her culture that people would be able to see when she walked across the stage to get her diploma from Lehi High School. So on top of her cap, alongside her tassel, she attached three brown eagle feathers.

When she lined up behind the curtains with the other students on graduation day, she felt good in her regalia. Then, she remembers a teacher barking: “What are those?” And he pointed to her head.

“These feathers are sacred,” Savala explained, pulling off her cap to show him the small addition. “They represent honesty, truth, strength and courage.”

“Take them off. Or I’m going to confiscate them,” Savala said that he insisted. “If you don’t, you won’t be able to walk.”

He waved off her protest, she said, and repeated his command as the procession music started. Savala didn’t want to get left behind, so she unclipped the feathers from her cap, clenching them in her hand. And she filed out with her classmates.

The teacher, she said, waited by the entrance to make sure she didn’t put them back on.

“My culture is a really big deal to me,” Savala said, reflecting on the May 29 graduation ceremony. “There was no reason why I should have had to take the eagle feathers off. They weren’t bothering anybody.”

In recent years, schools and districts across the state have wanted to promote a formal, uniform look among graduates that limits distractions or special attention. Some have prohibited anything worn over the robe.

For many racial and ethnic communities, those limitations can feel discriminatory.

Alpine School District — which includes Lehi High School — came under fire last year for banning flower leis and requiring a Pacific Islander student to remove a ta’ovala cloth that he wore under his gown to honor his Tongan heritage. At the time, that student said he felt like he was asked to hide his culture. This year, in response to the backlash, the district allowed leis but no other ornamentation and no feathers.

“They’re trying to treat everyone the same. But they’re not all the same,” said Harold Foster, the American Indian specialist with the Utah Board of Education. “They all come from different backgrounds and nationalities and cultures. Students should be able to express that.”

At Lehi High School, nearly nine in 10 students are white. Savala was one of only seven Native Americans there out of more than 1,500 kids.

A misunderstanding?

Traditionally, eagle feathers are worn only on special occasions, such as weddings and graduations, as a way for tribal members to represent their ties to land and family. It’s offensive, Foster said, and technically illegal to ask a Native American to remove them.

And had the Lehi High teacher confiscated them himself, he could have been charged.

Under federal law, possessing eagle feathers is restricted. But there is a special provision for tribes who use them for religious and cultural purposes. Savala’s uncle received the feathers with a permit. He had waited years for a bird to be available — the federal government usually requires an individual to hold off until one of the protected species dies naturally.

He gave the feathers to his niece as a special gift, said Savala’s mom, Natasha Beletso. “We had to pluck them off ourselves,” she added.

Lehi High Principal Doug Webb said the teacher who made Savala take them off her cap likely misunderstood but was trying to enforce the school’s policy.

“We were very clear about nothing on your cap,” Webb said. “I don’t want to say we don’t make mistakes. But we do have students who do try to wear things they’re not supposed to.”

He said that students were told the guidelines at an assembly, emailed a copy and also given a rules packet when they picked up their gowns. The school generally told students not to wear jeans, shorts or flip-flops under the robes. All adornments for above them, it said, should be saved until after the ceremony. No caps should be ornamented.

One lei was permitted, Webb added, “just to take care of things” after the issues arose last year. But largely the decision on decorations were up to the school, and Lehi High decided to “keep it formal.”

“Certainly, if we could have visited about it ahead of time, we would have taken it into consideration,” he said about the feathers. “It makes you feel terrible to think a student had a bad graduation. But not allowing her to wear it would not be because of ethnicity. There are so many things that go on before graduation with 430 students, that it gets pretty rote with decisions about what students have on.”

The policy wasn’t the same districtwide or statewide. Beletso’s younger brother — who’s the same age as Savala, her daughter — was able to wear his feathers in neighboring Nebo School District.

The family believes, too, that allowing leis but not other cultural displays, such as the feathers or headscarves or jewelry, ignores other minorities. And it’s particularly harmful, the family said, considering Utah’s prominent Native American community.

“To target and isolate the American Indian, I think that’s wrong,” Foster said. “There’s something wrong here with this.”

Feathers and leis

Alpine School District is the largest in the state, but, with where it’s situated in Utah County, it has one of the smallest minority communities.

In the district overall, fewer than 0.3% of the students are American Indian. And only 19% are students of color. At Lehi High, it’s slightly more skewed. Roughly 16% of the population is diverse.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

That largely white makeup can lead to a lack of understanding and cultural sensitivity, says Moroni Benally, a Navajo activist and cofounder of the Utah League of Native American Voters. But, he added: “We can’t blame allegations of wrongdoing on ignorance.”

In the end, he said, it’s a matter of religious freedom in a state that generally values that. School staffers need to do a better job, Benally believes, of recognizing all religions — not just the dominant faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For Native Americans, wearing feathers is just as sacred as Latter-day Saints wearing CTR (“choose the right”) rings.

And if students of color feel invisible and are told not to publicly display their cultures and beliefs, he added, it can be detrimental.

“There are mental and emotional implications to something like this,” Benally said.

Even in districts with more diverse student populations, there can still be issues.

Last year, Salt Lake City School District rented space at the Huntsman Center for its ceremonies. The district has one of the largest minority student populations in the state, but the center would not allow leis on the floor. It had just installed new carpet and worried about petals or candy being squished in.

“The leis are always a problem,” the director said at the time. “The students are excited. They’re hugging. Flowers and leaves fall off on the floor.”

The district challenged but was not able to change the facility’s decision. This year, though, the Huntsman Center updated its policy. Students were allowed to wear leis if the district paid an extra $2,500 cleaning fee (each graduation held there costs $10,000).

The spokeswoman for Salt Lake City School District, Yándary Chatwin, said it was worth it: “It’s important for families to be able to celebrate in the way that best fits their culture and traditions.”

Additionally, the district held a separate and special ceremony for its Native American students. The population there is low — roughly 1.2% or 280 students — but the district as a whole is 56.6% minority.

While the Huntsman Center previously had restrictions on graduation wear, the place where Lehi High School held its graduation did not. The UCCU Center in Orem bans fireworks, balloons, confetti and pompoms. Feathers and leis are not on the list.

That means the school deliberately chose what students could and could not wear, Benally noted.

Of minorities in Utah, American Indians are on the lower end for graduation rates. About 77% finish high school. Benally wonders if things like not allowing students to display their culture could make that even worse.

“I certainly believe that’s one of the factors,” he said.

‘Who I am’

Family members often try to collect eagle feathers from a bird that has lived or flown over the land where they have ties.

“It’s very important to Native American culture,” Savala said. “At powwows and special occasions, everyone has eagle feathers in their hair.”

She held her three feathers in her hand during the ceremony and reattached them to her cap when it was over. They sat just above her tsiiyéé — a traditional Navajo hair bun tied with yarn — and pointed to the right with her 2019 tassel.

“I didn’t think that was very fair she had to take them off,” said Beletso, her mom. “It was sad.”

“I just wanted to show who I am and my culture,” Savala added.

To her, it was more than a piece of ornamentation. It’s part of her identity.

Outside, she unzipped her graduation gown to uncover all that she wore to honor her Navajo heritage.