Student seeks to represent Native American heritage at graduation, changing controversial school policy in the process

WHITEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA (WWAY) — If you’ve been through high school, you know just completing the four years is a major accomplishment and feather in your cap. Yet, that’s exactly what almost kept Whiteville High School senior Tessa Nicholson from walking the stage this June.

The Nicholson family are part of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe, and have impress on their children the impressed on their children the importance on their heritage and traditions, like the feather. Generations of Native Americans wear it for major milestones that required a lot of obstacles to overcome, like graduations.

“An eagle flies above the storm,” said dad, Jason Nicholson. “And it’s the same, she’s come above that storm.”

Straight-A senior Tessa Nicholson says she was looking forward to wearing her tribe’s traditional feather and finishing school, until the Whiteville High School graduation committee and principal announced the dress code.

No added cords, stolls, or other items from outside organizations were allowed. Nicholson went to her principal.

“I said it’s part of my culture, my heritage, It shows where it’s hit my milestone,” Tessa said. “He said you can’t. It’s a decoration.”

Nicholson said if it came down to it, she wouldn’t walk without the feather come graduation in June.

“You have to do what’s right. If I can’t show my heritage, why even walk,” she asked.

Her father, Jason went to the school board Monday. He explained the feather’s meaning in Native American culture, calling the rule understandable in some contexts, but an infringement of freedom of speech in this one.

Whiteville City Schools Superintendent Marc Whichard said that was never the intention of the rule.

“There was never any intent to just be outright contrary for any way towards the Waccamaw Siouan tribe,” he said. “They’re great members of our community, and an integral part. You know, if we can find a way that we can be agreeable to do that, we are actively seeking ways to do that.”

A council member confirmed Wednesday they approved working on an amendment that would allow Tessa and students like her to honor their Native American hertiage with the feather during graduation. Nicholson said she’s ecstatic to wear the treasured tradition.

“It’s an honor,” Tessa smiled. “Because hard work pays off. And getting the feather is when you accomplish hard work.”

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