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Is Racism Behind Banning of Honor Song From Graduation Ceremonies?

Many wonder if a racist history is to blame for the Chamberlain School District's refusal to allow an Honor Song to be sung at graduation.

A history of racism lurks in the shadows of Chamberlain, South Dakota’s past, and many see the Chamberlain School District’s refusal to allow the Honor Song to be played at graduation (again) as evidence of that continuing disrespect.

RELATED: South Dakota School Won't Allow Native Honor Song at Graduation

A letter from 1954 has resurfaced, written by then Mayor Herschel V. Melcher, who wrote that the people of the city of Chamberlain are opposed to “having Indians in our schools or living in the unsanitary conditions about the city.” “We have no intention of making an Indian comfortable around here, especially an official,” Melcher wrote.

Attached to the letter is a resolution refusing to allow tribal offices in the town. The resolution was signed by Commissioners O.L. McDonal, Frank G. Knippling, Willard A. Wilin, and R.C. Martin. The letter was in opposition to relocating the Indian Office from Fort Thompson, South Dakota to Chamberlain.

This 1954 letter has resurfaced.

No one involved in the quest for the Honor Song believes that the entire town of Chamberlain is as blatantly racist as it was more than half a century ago. However, there is a prevailing assumption that the tug-of-war over a song to honor all students is at least partly due to the racist history of the town.

“What we are getting back from them is pure racism,” says James Cadwell, Santee, Crow Creek resident, and teacher at the Crow Creek schools for 14 years. “How do we work with them on being culturally competent? I don’t think there is anyone there who has a conscious bias, but I do think it’s an unconscious bias.”

Crow Creek Tribal Chairman Brandon Sazue believes the school is holding out over an issue of pride. “I believe they are holding on and don’t want to have to say, ‘We let them beat us,’ ” he said.

Christina Rose

Crow Creek Tribal Chairman Brandon Sazue standing) said, “I am always for the kids. If they want to stand up and fight for it, I am gonna do it and so are the rest of us.”

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“If the board says no, what can we do?” Debra Johnson, school superintendent asked. Johnson and High School Principal Allan Bertram made the decision to incorporate the Honor Song in a special in-school assembly, “And we will have the Honor Song at that assembly for the graduates. The principal and I have met with the students in the Native American Club, and they are the students who planned the feathering ceremony and the pow wow.”

When asked how she thought students might feel about not having the Honor Song sung at the graduation, Johnson said, “I believe we do so many things to educate and show respect for the Native American culture, and we want all of our students to know that. It’s hard to comment on one aspect when I see so many things that we do that show respect.”

However, Cadwell’s response to the inclusion of the feathering ceremony and pow wow was, “We had to fight for all of that. They were going to do away with the pow wow. All the things they are touting, ‘All we do,’ they are required by Impact Aid.”

Impact Aid is federal funding for public schools that lack a strong tax base, either because of the number of military families or Native Americans.

For the last four years, students and parents from the Lower Brule and Crow Creek Reservations have been appealing to the Chamberlain Schools to include the Honor Song in the graduation ceremonies. A petition to include the Honor Song at the graduation was signed by 160 students and staff members. The Great Plains Tribal Association, composed of the elected chairs and presidents of Great Plains Nations, recently signed a resolution calling for the inclusion of the song.

The resolution states, “American Indian languages and Song are the repository of the collective wisdom, Spiritualism and culture of Native Nations, which contain ceremony, indigenous knowledge and traditions...that have been thousands of years in the making, and can lead to positive reinforcement of traditional values...” The resolution also calls for a spirit of reconciliation from the Chamberlain School Board.

Sazue noted that the vote this year did show a slight change. Last year, the board voted 6 to 1 against the Honor Song. This year the vote was four against, with one vote for the song and one vote abstaining.

“Diversity is inevitable,” Sazue said. “At the basketball games, we honor everybody; it’s not about color. It’s our tradition to honor everyone, it’s the way we do it. I worked for the Crow Creek Elementary School and every morning, our kids get up and do the Pledge of Allegiance. We want to honor our schools and other districts, but for whatever reason, the elected officials don’t want to.”

Cadwell said, “As a person who grew up in Crow Creek, I never remember going to events where Native people didn’t stand up for the National Anthem.” Yet Cadwell said a recent demonstration of the song was played and the words interpreted for the school board, and two of the board members did not stand up. “How disrespectful of another person’s culture, not standing up,” he said.

“I believe there are a lot of good-minded people in Chamberlain who show a lot of support, I know a lot of good people personally,” Sazue said. “These children are learning about diversity. No matter what color you are or what song you sing, it’s about equality amongst all people.”