Like many high school seniors, Tvli Birdshead is excited to graduate this spring. But the 18-year-old has mixed feelings about the upcoming ceremony.
The Chickasaw Nation member was hoping to sport a few tokens of his Native American heritage on graduation day — including an honor cord from his tribe, and a beaded cap and feather — but school officials at Latta High School in Ada, Oklahoma said it violated the dress code.
Latta High School principal Stan Cochran informed Birdshead's mother, Taloa Birdshead, that her son could wear his honor cord at a baccalaureate service but not for the graduation ceremony, and she knew then that they would also object to his beaded cap and eagle feather.
"I respectfully replied to his email that I would schedule a meeting with the superintendent, school board, and other officials within the tribes and the state, if the matter needed to go further," she told TODAY Style.
After initially feeling excited for graduation, Birdshead was understandably disappointed to hear the news, but he wasn't exactly surprised.
"I was frustrated at first, but I had already prepared myself for that answer. I had heard past stories of other students being denied (the right) to wear their regalia during graduation," he told TODAY.
School officials told the Birdsheads that the student's Native American regalia would be against school policy.
"They told me if they made the exception for my son, then it would open the door for other organizations and such to inquire," his mother said.
Still, the opportunity to sport his Native American regalia is important to Birdshead, who is a member of five different tribes.
"Being able to wear any regalia during my graduation gives me the opportunity to acknowledge my people, and my relations. It gives me the opportunity to show who I come from as an extension of my beliefs," he said.
The Latta Public Schools superintendent Cliff Johnson told TODAY the graduation dress code allows only school-issued honor cords and stoles. He is, however, hoping to work with the Birdshead family to look into all available options.
"They have requested to discuss the policy with the Latta Board of Education at the next meeting. We are in the process of making arrangements for them to be able to present their views and concerns to the Board concerning the district’s procedures for graduation," Johnson said.
Taloa Birdshead has since met with Danny Wells, executive officer of The Chickasaw Nation Education Division, who is looking into a potential mediated meeting before the board meeting takes place. She's also working in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
TODAY contacted the ACLU and they shared the following joint statement they've issued with several other organizations: "The Native American Rights Fund (“NARF”), Oklahoma Indian Legal Services (“OILS”), and American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma (“ACLU-Oklahoma”) are very concerned about the Latta Public Schools’ denial of Tvli Birdshead’s right to wear Native American religious and cultural items at his high school graduation. Mr. Birdshead wishes to wear the feather in order to honor his Native American heritage, and as a sign of his academic success in graduating high school. The Chickasaw Honor Cord is worn as a sign of academic success in graduating high school, similar to that of the National Honor Society. There are compelling legal and policy reasons why Mr. Birdshead should be allowed to wear these items."
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby echoed their sentiments in a statement to TODAY: “We are thrilled Chickasaw students want to honor their heritage in graduation ceremonies by wearing the Chickasaw honor cord. Pride in the educational achievement of our young people has been a part of Chickasaw culture for generations. We hope these cords serve as a symbol of that pride and a source of encouragement for years to come, and we hope that all institutions recognize our intent.”
As he awaits a decision from the school, Birdshead is looking forward to starting the next chapter of his life, and will attend The Institute of American Indian Arts this fall.
In the meantime, his mom hopes her son's experience leads to positive change: "I hope my son will be afforded the opportunity to honor and be honored by his people, his family, his school and his community. I hope he is afforded the opportunity to be, in this situation, yet another advocate for mutual respect, understanding, and positive change moving forward regarding relations between the school, the community, and not only the tribes he represents but all other Indigenous people across the state and the nation."