The small, white eagle plume that will be affixed to Elainna Robles’ cap as she walks across the stage to get her high school diploma Sunday symbolizes many things: family and tradition, achievement and honor.
She’s always known eagle feathers are a revered symbol in her Native American culture; a gift from elders honoring life’s achievements.
“It’s a symbol of strength, power, unity and honor,” said the young woman who will graduate from Lincoln Southeast High School.
Until recently, she figured her great-grandpa, a medicine man in the Rosebud Sioux tribe, would conduct the ceremony and present her with a plume, which is traditionally given to young women.
But she had to get her feather early — before he came from Alliance to see her graduate — because the small, white plume represents something else this year: a first for Lincoln Public Schools graduates.
Robles is among 18 LPS seniors who will be allowed for the first time to wear their eagle feathers and plumes during graduation ceremonies. A total of 41 Native students will graduate, but under federal law, only those enrolled in a tribe are eligible to receive the feathers.
For years, Native families have asked LPS to allow their children to wear eagle feathers at graduation to no avail.
“It was always 'No,'" said Rose Springer, youth program director at the Lincoln Indian Center.
District officials were concerned that letting Native students wear the feathers would be unfair to others students not allowed to wear cultural symbols, Springer said.
But during a meeting last August between the Indian Center and LPS officials about supporting Native students academically, the subject of eagle feathers came up, Springer said.
The result: A three-year academic support pilot with the Indian Center that uses eagle feathers as an incentive to encourage students to graduate.
The graduation rate of Native students lags far behind other groups nationally and locally. Last year, the LPS graduation rate was 85.6 percent overall; for Native students it was 52.9 percent.
Being able to wear something culturally important — and that symbolizes the achievement of graduating — is important, Springer said.
“It’s a high achievement to graduate. If kids aren’t feeling that they’re getting support or being recognized, it’s harder for them,” she said. “It gives them a sense of belonging, of pride.”
The pilot program was approved in April so it would be open to this year's graduates, but will get underway in earnest next year.
Native students will be able to apply online to be a part of the Eagle Feather Program, setting specific academic goals. The Indian Center will help them reach those goals, work with them to complete homework and, ultimately, to graduate.
The Indian Center will bring in more tutors to help, and if necessary students also can use existing academic support programs at their schools, Springer said.
High-achieving students can also apply, setting their own goals or offering support to fellow students, Springer said.
While LPS sees this largely as an incentive program, it means much more to Native families, whose history is clouded by boarding schools aimed at eradicating Native students' tradition and culture.
“It’s a Native space within this institution which has traditionally stripped us of our culture and used education as a tool against us to institutionalize us into the European mindset,” said Joseph Rousseau, chairman of the Indian Center board of directors.
This is the opposite of that mindset, he said.
“So that adds to the significance of a public school system creating this recognition for Native students,” he said. “It’s a great step to ... building bridges with the Native community and the education system.”
Alfred White Eyes, a member of the Omaha tribe who performed the ceremony and presented the eagle feathers to the LPS graduates, said some other Nebraska schools allow students to wear the feathers at graduation, as do Native boarding schools and colleges.
But generations have been denied that opportunity, he said.
“So today we’re lucky to come by this for our children,” he said.
The feathers are an integral part of family, an acknowledgement by young people of their responsibility to their elders.
“It’s a part of our culture, our heritage,” White Eyes said. “The reason the eagle feathers are so dear to us is that they fly the highest in the sky. The prayers we say to them are carried to the heavens to give us blessing for what we are trying to do in our life — for doing the right thing.”
For Robles, the feather symbolizes her determination to graduate — to overcome struggles that trace to the ninth grade when she began running with the wrong crowd.
She started running away, she got in fights, and got kicked out of school — but she came back, despite students who tried to pick fights with her, caught up and finished. Now, she plans to attend Southeast Community College to begin work on a nursing degree.
“I realized that’s not the type of life I wanted to lead,” she said. "That's not how I was raised."
The eagle plume she'll wear as she crosses the graduation stage Sunday is a connection to the family she loves and a culture that has sometimes been hard to hang onto in a white culture, away from extended family.
White Eyes hopes the district’s eagle feathers program will help remedy that.
“I hope it will bring them back to the powwows and cultural activities we are trying to keep alive,” he said.