As the last names of this year’s graduates were announced in Chamberlain you could hear the drum group singers gain strength with this year's honor song. While the song still remains outside this boarder town gymnasium the singing of the song is slowly becoming the norm.
As a white parent scrambles by for a last minute seat she leans into me and whispers into my ear don't worry Jim "we" are slowly wearing "them" down. "We" will be inside singing next year. It would appear that the language of "us and them"is having a slow death in Chamberlain and being replaced by "we". For some it is happening to slow and for yet others it is too fast. The reality is that it is happening with or without the help of the all white school board at Chamberlain. Nearly 50 percent of this year graduates carry names that are identifiably native. Nearly seven years ago I made a prediction to the superintendent and the all white school board that in the next 10 years this will be our school as I referenced the dramatically changing student population. Not unlike other reservation boarder towns Chamberlain is losing its white student base as young families move away, filling that base is our Native population.
As I watched the discussion Sunday with students, parents, school board members and superintendent Johnson about this years graduates choice of cap decorations I can't help but remind myself that in one short time span between school and graduation we expect the students to transform into responsible adults even though only days ago we required them to ask permission to go to the bathroom.
It is very apparent change for some in the community is difficult. The once-present Eagle staff that was placed on the stage to acknowledge Native participation during graduation has been removed. The drum that was placed on the stage several years ago to be used to sing an Honor song during graduation, is gone. The school board changed this at the very last minute and has refused to allow this traditional Lakota/Dakota recognition since. Progress is often slow when dealing with issues such as race and racism. But the reality is that it will happen as long as we keep it at the forefront of our agenda. There are many mixed emotions about where the song should be sung. It was to be done inside because we wanted to let people know we have a different way of honoring our children. But, it is done outside because this is a white school and this is how they have always done it and they are not ready for change.
It is apparent to me that we have both fell down with our efforts to support the cultural identity of our children and grand children. We have a responsibility and a right to encourage the school board to incorporate our Native culture and values into this learning environment. We also have a responsibility to teach those values at home. Honestly, it appears that we are somewhat embarrassed by our culture and as a result see very little value in sharing it. As a Native person I have seen the movies, the literature and a hundred other things that portrayed us in a stereotypical and dysfunctional manner. We all have a responsibility to dispel those negative myths. We have an obligation to each and every child to break that cycle.
The honor song is one way of doing that.
James Cadwell is a retired educator and an Activist for American Indian Rights. Currently living in the Black Hills.