The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council will weigh a proposal that, if passed, grants the tribe power to deny vehicle tag funds to schools that prohibit Native American students from observing cultural practices during events such as graduations.
The measure, called the Cherokee Nation Motor Vehicle Licensing and Tax Code Modification of 2019, received unanimous approval during an Oct. 31 meeting of the council’s Rules Committee. Cherokee Nation Deputy Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo said the proposal is in response to a “recurring issue” of reports of schools attempting to impose restrictions on students’ hair length or barring students from wearing eagle feathers on their caps during graduations.
She said eagle feathers are used to denote significant accomplishments in the lives of Native people and that there are often “very significant cultural and religious implications” tied to the treatment of hair. Nimmo said the goal of the legislation is to allow the Cherokee Nation to have a way to tell schools, “If you don’t change this policy, you’re not going to get next year the donation the Cherokee Nation annually makes to your school.”
The Council will discuss the amendment during a meeting Tuesday evening, according to an agenda.
The proposal states the tribe may withhold funds at the discretion of the principal chief from schools that refuse to recognize the “cultural, religious or historical significance of the Cherokee Nation and/or other federally recognized tribes.” It also allows the possibility of withholding funds from schools that are “not proactive in addressing anti-Native issues” such as a ban on wearing regalia during graduations or other “milestone events.”
Additional examples in the amendment include the refusal to address issues relating to Native mascots and logos, as well as the refusal to “properly address other issues” that could affect Cherokee students.
The Motor Vehicle and Licensing Tax Legislative Act states that 38% of fees and taxes collected from the sale of the tribe’s vehicle tags is allocated to schools within the tribe’s jurisdiction that have students who are tribal citizens. The Act also applies to Osage Hills Public Schools in Osage County and Miami Public Schools in Ottawa County.
Nimmo said the Cherokee Nation does not place restrictions on how schools can use the money upon receipt but that officials wanted a way to put “more teeth” behind repeated requests for schools to honor students’ traditions. The Cherokee Nation has disbursed a combined $5.7 million to 108 schools so far this year, she said, adding that the money schools receive is based on the number of Cherokee students enrolled.
Last year Nimmo spoke to the Vian School Board in favor of a student who wanted to wear a feather at her May 2019 graduation despite school officials previously having denied her brother permission to do so. Then-Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr., who is now the Cherokee Nation principal chief, also wrote the board a letter advocating for the student.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter wrote a letter to the Vian School Board saying he believed the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act required schools to permit the practice. The move prompted the district to reverse its stance on the issue.
Nimmo said she did not anticipate significant opposition to the legislation, especially with Hunter’s decision to lend his support to students based on religious grounds. Hunter wrote another letter in May to Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Secretary of Education Michael Rogers saying he hoped to establish a “uniform practice among school districts regarding this particular practice.”
“Unfortunately, it appears that various schools in the state are continuing to tell Native American students that they cannot wear the spiritual eagle feathers on their graduation cap,” Hunter wrote, later warning of risks of litigation for failure to follow the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act. He added that there was evidence of other schools allowing students to wear eagle feathers without experiencing any serious compromise to the order and seriousness of graduation ceremonies.
“Respecting the religious beliefs of all Oklahoma students, includ(ing) Native American students, is the right thing to do, and having some schools prohibit a religious practice that other schools permit makes little sense,” Hunter wrote.