Before venturing out into the world and becoming adults, students from Chinook High School in Lethbridge, Alta., had a party over the May long weekend, where they toasted to their successful completion of Grade 12. 

The theme of the costume party was Cowboys and Indians and that prompted objections on social media after photos and video of the event were posted online.

Tieja Medicine Crane, a Grade 12 student at a different high school in the city, said she felt offended when she saw the posts online.

"The story behind the headdress is that every feather means something. It was an act of bravery. You earned all those feathers in order to make the headdress," Medicine Crane said. 

"I will never be able to wear a headdress because I haven't earned it … So someone else, not from my culture, is going to wear it? That's really offensive."

In addition to costumes of feathers and headdresses, many at the party wore imitation war paint and hollered stereotypical chants by the bonfire. 

cowboys and indians party

For Medicine Crane, seeing people wearing feathers was offensive because of the meaning they hold in Indigenous culture. She herself will likely never get to wear feathers, as she hasn't earned them, she said. (Submitted by Tieja Medicine Crane)

Backlash online

In response to Medicine Crane's objections on social media, many students who attended the party tried to defend it, while also criticizing her. One student wrote: "It's a stupid thing to get mad about."

"If they're allowed to use all of the things white people use, why can't we do this? It's like saying no one can use electricity or something because white people invented it," one poster said. 

Medicine Crane said some of the hardest things for her to hear were comments from other Aboriginal students. One said, "Is it racist to wear cowboy boots and a cowboy hat? Your logic is dumb. I am sorry but please learn what racism really means." 

Tieja Medicine Crane

Tieja Medicine Crane, centre, at her graduation earlier in May. The feather in her cap was blessed before she wore it to her grad ceremony. (Submitted by Tieja Medicine Crane)

Initially, Medicine Crane said she hesitated, thinking that maybe she was in the wrong and overreacting, but spurred on by friends and family, she decided to continue raising her concerns.

Then someone on social media took the discussion too far. A father of one of the boys who attended the party said his son has now been physically threatened because his name has been linked to the event. 

The school's response

The party was not a school-sanctioned event, but the high school's administration and the school district became aware of the student-organized party this week. On Thursday, the school hosted an assembly to address the issue.

At the presentation the teens were reminded to behave appropriately and safely during graduation season and were engaged in dialogue about racism in Canada, according to a school district spokesperson.

"[Our] schools make it an aim to grow learning communities that are culturally sensitive and diverse, with the hope students go into the world and live the lessons learned within the halls of their schools," Lethbridge School District No. 51 said in a statement to CBC News. 

"The school will continue to hold a place in the community that ensures progressive and thoughtful education for all our students. It will also be a place where such lessons are safe to learn." 

cowboys and indians party

'Don't like the theme, don't come to the parties. Don't understand what racism is, learn it or keep your mouth closed instead of freaking out at everyone,' said one of Medicine Crane's peers in a social media post. (Submitted by Tieja Medicine Crane)

Need for more education

Linda Many Guns, a professor in the department of Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge, found it hard to believe the students wouldn't have known a party like this was unacceptable.

"My immediate reaction to even hearing about something like this is absolute shock and horror, and fear at the lack of education, lack of cultural awareness, lack of sensitivity, lack of the ability to have an equal and appreciative respect in community," said Many Guns. 

While the event might not have been sanctioned by the school, educators need to evaluate the role they play, she added. Part of the educational gap might exist because most teachers never learned in university how to properly address these issues with students, she said.

"While we might just be putting some education into the universities, you have, I don't know, 50,000 professionals that don't have that education." 

Many Guns said she's experienced her fair share of racism while living in southern Alberta, but she also said she's seen a lot of progress in attitudes towards Indigenous cultures and people over the last three decades.

"I think that these kinds of situations that occurred in the high school are no longer tolerable."