The ACLU-NCLF and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) were contacted in May by the parent of a student at Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke who wanted to wear eagle feathers on either his cap or gown during his graduation ceremony on Friday, June 13, 2008.
Samuel Bird, father of Corey Bird (pictured), contacted the organizations, seeking assistance after Principal Wilkins informed Corey that he could not wear his eagle feathers in light of a mandatory graduation dress code policy that prohibited students from wearing “[m]essages, signs, markings, stringers, ribbons, etc.” on their “cap[s] or gown[s].” Corey indicated that he wanted to wear the feathers for religious and spiritual reasons in order to honor his late mother and grandfather. When it became apparent that school officials intended to stand by Principal Wilkins’s decision to prohibit Corey from wearing his feathers, ACLU-NCLF and NARF sent a letter to the school district on June 5, 2008, urging the district to reconsider its decision. Robeson County is approximately 40% Native American, principally Lumbee, according to the U.S. Census. Consequently, ACLU-NCLF and NARF argued that providing the Lumbee and other Native American students in Robeson County an opportunity to wear their eagle feathers would signify support for this significant portion of the population. The June 5th letter also explained that there is legal authority in this federal district for carving out an exception to the mandatory dress code only for those students (and their parents) who demonstrate a sincerely-held religious belief.
In addition to sending the June 5th letter, Rebecca Headen, coordinator of ACLU-NCLF’s Racial Justice Project, and Katy Parker, Legal Director of ACLU-NCLF traveled to Lumberton for the Robeson County School Board meeting on June 10, 2008, and spoke on behalf of Corey and his father. Corey and his father also spoke at the school board meeting. In light of ACLU-NCLF and NARF intervention, the school board decided to resolve the matter informally and permitted Corey to wear his feathers at graduation.