US school apologizes for cutting feather from Lakota student’s graduation cap

<span>Caps at a graduation ceremony. </span><span>Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA</span>
Caps at a graduation ceremony. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

A high school in New Mexico has apologized after a video went viral of staff confiscating the feathered graduation cap of a student before its commencement ceremony.

Farmington high school senior Genesis White Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had decorated her graduation cap with traditional Lakota decorations including beadwork and an aópazan, a white feather plume.

“That’s part of our culture, when we reach a milestone in our life, we as Lakotas decorate, do our beadwork and place our plume on them,” White Bull’s mother, Brenda White Bull, told the Tri-City Record in an interview. “I don’t appreciate them taking her plume, taking her beaded hat. That’s all cultural.”

The viral video shows two staff members of the school in Farmington, New Mexico, taking the cap from White Bull while she was seated ahead of her and her fellow students’ graduation ceremony. She was handed a plain cap.

White Bull’s mother approached the staff members, who then cut the plume from the cap.

The school district initially defended the staff, stating in a post on 16 May: “While the staff involved were following district guidelines, we acknowledge this could have been handled differently and better. Moving forward, we will work to refine our processes at the school level.”

A day later, the district issued an apology. “Farmington municipal schools and Farmington high school would like to apologize to the community, the student, and her family, for the events at graduation involving the Native American regalia,” the district stated in a press release. “It is clear that what occurred detracted from that and had the opposite effect.

“We are confident that our staff intended no disrespect or to violate anyone’s cultural beliefs or practices. In a community like ours, we need to have a new conversation about meaningful ways to best celebrate all of our graduates.”

The apology came after public scrutiny, including the council of the Navajo Nation condemning the action by the school district.

The first lady of the Navajo Nation said in a statement: “I am deeply disappointed that this happened at a school where we have many Navajo and Native graduates. I hope the school learns from this experience and can take corrective measures.”

Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico’s governor, called the action by the district “unacceptable,” and the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter issued a statement supporting White Bull over the confiscation of her graduation cap.