When Waverly “Wave” Wilson walked across the stage at Lakes High School graduation ceremonies Wednesday night, it was with her head held high and her Native American pride intact.
Wilson, 18, had fought for the right to wear an eagle feather instead of a tassel on her graduation cap. School officials denied her request, saying it would violate Clover Park School District rules that prohibit any additions to graduation caps and gowns.
So Wilson defied the Lakewood school’s rules. She wore both the orange-and-blue tassel that identified her as a Lakes Lancer and an eagle feather she received from her family in recognition of her achievement.
She kept the feather hidden until the last moment. She put it on her cap alongside the tassel just as she walked onto the stage.
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“It feels really great,” she said shortly after graduation ceremonies ended.
For Wilson, who is descended from members of the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Atsina) tribes of Montana, the eagle feather holds sacred significance. It was decorated with special beading by her mom and blessed by prayer.
“It means you are showing leadership and honoring your ancestors and your elders,” Wilson said.
She wanted to combine the feather with the symbolic moment when new graduates flip their tassels from the right to the left side of their mortar boards.
Wilson said that school officials initially suggested she hide the feather under her graduation gown to comply with the rules.
“That’s when we got angry,” said Wilson’s mom, Andi Dillon.
In response to questions from The News Tribune, the Clover Park School District issued a written statement saying officials consulted with the district’s Native American specialist and with an attorney about enforcement of the rule.
No decorations or modifications are allowed on cords, caps or gowns. The district says its rules are neutral across religions and cultures, prohibiting leis, rosaries, crosses or necklaces on graduation caps and gowns.
This isn’t the first time a Native American student has been denied a request to wear a feather at graduation. A student in Northern California this week won a lawsuit against his school district and was allowed to attach an eagle feather to his tassel. Several other incidents have been reported around the country.
Wilson said that after initially telling her no eagle feather could be worn on her cap, Clover Park officials suggested she wear the feather in her hair. The district says this was an option supported by “Native American elders from across the country.”
Wilson did have several feathers woven into her single hair braid Wednesday night. And after the ceremony she carried an eagle feather given to her by her grandfather.
But moving her graduation feather with the tassel was a symbolic moment for Wilson.
“We hold to traditional ways as best we can,” Dillon said. “As Native American people, we are spiritual. It’s part of who we are.”
“The eagle is the one who can get closest to the Creator,” added Wilson’s grandfather, Oda Turntoes-Kuhnhenn. “That is why the eagle feather is sacred.”
“Eagle feathers are given to you by your elders, when they feel that you earn them,” said Dillon. “It means you are being a leader, that you represent your people appropriately and that you take care of your elders and the young ones.”
Wilson has been volunteering since she was 8, assisting at school events and working with younger kids. She participates in powwows and is a Native American fancy dancer.
After graduation, she will spend the summer working — she runs the merry-go-round at an Auburn shopping mall. Then she plans to attend Green River College and study aviation. Her goal is to become a pilot.
Wilson said awards she has won in Junior ROTC and from other groups during her school career are important. But the eagle feather she earned for graduating carries deeper meaning.
“I’ve won many awards,” Wilson said. “But this one is for showing responsibility. It is honoring my ancestors and my elders, and it is for future Native students.”