A Win for Civil Rights

Lakota Law

Are you ready for some good news? A few days back, on Dec. 9, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a big decision in favor of Native students who take pride in their communities. Its ruling ensures that Larissa Waln, member of Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe in South Dakota, can now pursue a civil rights suit against her former school district in Arizona.

In 2019, Larissa was forbidden to participate in her graduation ceremony for wearing a beaded graduation cap adorned with a sacred eagle feather and medicine wheel. Her school district had previously issued a rule prohibiting students from decorating or altering their commencement caps. But that very day, a different school in the same district permitted another graduating student to wear a commencement cap featuring a breast cancer awareness sticker. 

Larissa Waln with her deadly graduation cap.

In April of 2020, Waln and her family sued the school district in federal district court for violating their rights to freedom of religion and speech and denying her equal protection under various state and federal laws. Notably, the Waln v. Dysart School District lawsuit cited a 2019 report published by the Lakota People’s Law Project, which provided crucial context regarding the importance of regalia to Native peoples’ cultural expression.

Last week’s Circuit Court ruling overturns a 2021 dismissal by a district court, mandating that the lower court now hear Larissa’s case. When ruling in her favor, the 9th Circuit referenced Lakota Law’s report on the second page of its opinion, highlighting the report’s summary of the boarding school era and the longstanding U.S. assimilation policy of “kill the Indian, and save the man.” While one decision can never make up for the long and damaging history of Native erasure in America, we’re elated that Larissa will be able to pursue justice.

Through her lawsuit, Larissa is addressing Native self-determination from a different angle than the advocates defending the Indian Child Welfare Act in Brackeen v. Haaland, the case recently heard by the Supreme Court. Both cases are important. Thanks at least in part to her bravery and the activism of people standing in solidarity with Native students, Arizona changed its state law in 2021. The passage of AZ House Bill 2705 makes it illegal for state public and charter schools to prohibit Native students from wearing regalia at graduation ceremonies. So, today, I’m grateful to Larissa for taking a stand, to the 9th Circuit for making the right decision, and to you for standing by our side in the fight for justice.

Wopila tanka — thank you, as always, for your friendship.
Chase Iron Eyes
Co-Director and Lead Counsel
The Lakota People’s Law Project

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