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Rapid City Includes Native American Honor Song in Graduation; Chamberlain Rejects

Last updated on 2013.04.09

A lot of South Dakotans will subject themselves to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" today. For some of our neighbors, this Western tune is more of a strain than others. Thus, for the second year, the Rapid City school district is including a Native American honor song in its high school graduation ceremonies.

What does this song say to students?

"The first sound you hear in the mother's womb is the heartbeat. The drum is the heartbeat," said Abena Songbird of the South Dakota School of Mines Office of Multicultural Affairs. "It calls our nations together."

With all students together for graduation, that beat drives a Native American honor song, music played by the Lakota to celebrate the students' achievement.

"It's a way of incorporating and honoring these students in the way that means and speaks the most to them," Songbird said.

And it speaks to them in a way many western graduation traditions cannot.

"It sends a message that you are welcome here," said Scott Wiley, Coordinator for the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

That provides a safe atmosphere for all students.

"We want to make sure all kids feel like they're included in this school district," Rapid City School District Superintendent Dr. Tim Mitchell said [Jason Tarr, "Rapid City School District Embraces Native American Honor Song as Part of Graduation Ceremony," KOTA-TV, 2012.05.18].

The honor song seems a reasonable way to say to all students, "We share a community. We respect each other. We find ways to co-exist."

The Chamberlain school district is having none of that. Superintendent Deb Johnson and her school board are committing all sorts of rhetorical contortions to keep Native American influence out of their graduation ceremony today. Check out how board chair Ted Petrak responded to one reporter's question about a local request for an honor song in the Chamberlain graduation ceremony:

School board Chairperson Ted Petrak offered a rambling, unclear explanation when asked if the district will vote for having a Lakota honor song for all of this year's high school graduates.

"We're, as a board, still considering more than that or what to do — if (what is already planned for graduation is) enough or what. We haven't, I guess, rather than jump into anything, we've been considering everything pretty closely and trying to come to a majority decision on the board about what we should be doing and what's fair to the kids," said Petrak. "I guess we haven't really come to a decision on anything yet, that's why nothing has changed this year. We're still going to do other things that we have been doing. Right now, I guess nothing's changed. Thanks so much for calling."

Petrak then abruptly ended the telephone interview by hanging up [Jesse Abernathy, "School Balks at Honor Song During Graduation," Native Sun News, 2012.05.17].

School board member Dallas Thompson says the Lakota honor song is "divisive" and vaguely suggests that his Native American neighbors need to straighten up their home lives instead of making up stories about discrimination:

Thompson says he is concerned the Lakota honor song is divisive and not good for the unity of the class of 2012.

"Anything that comes to separate us is not good for the unit as a whole," he said. In response to the claims of some Native American parents that their children are discriminated against by the school district, Thompson said, "I do not agree with that. If the kids were just left alone to be kids, they'd all be good kids. But some of them bring issues to class that they bring from home, and that's not good, on both sides" [Abernathy, 2012.05.17].

Chamberlain's James Cadwell, who requested the honor song, says school board members are using church-state separation as part of their defense of tradition:

However, some of the board members balked at the idea. "They brought up that the honor song is religious and shouldn't be allowed at a school event," said Cadwell.

In light of Chamberlain High School's annual baccalaureate, which is a pre-graduation religious service, Cadwell calls the claim as well as the board of education's hesitancy a "double standard."

"I told them they can't have it both ways," he said [Abernathy, 2012.05.17].

In her official denial of Cadwell's request, Superintendent Johnson lumps the honor song in with past requests for announcements, special speakers, and scholarship recognitions. She says "the request came a little bit late to be able to notify parents," although I'm left wondering what's there to notify? You call your Lakota neighbors, they bring their drums Sunday, boom! Program planned.

The Chamberlain school board's decision boils down to tradition: we white folks like our traditions, we don't like you red folks' traditions. We make the rules, so leave your drums at home.

Cadwell tells me that he sees the honor song as valuable for everyone in the community, not just Native American students. He says integrating Native American culture into white practices is an essential step in getting Chamberlain to come to grips with profound demographic changes taking place:

...[T]he median age for Chamberalin is 46.3 years of age the median age for our reservation communities that border on Chamberlain is 21.4 (Lower Brule) and 21.1 (Crow Creek). It is obvious who is going to contribute and has contributed to the population growth is these areas. Crow Creek and Lower Brule grew by nearly 4% in the last ten years according to the 2010 U.S. census but Chamberalins population declined by 3.8%. Currently 2/3 of the children born in the Chamberlain Hospital are Native American.

All of these stats tell us a story about the reality of changing demographics that for the most part appear to be predicting the future of this community. Someone needs to help this community understand the change that is taking place and help them to understand that they are past the stage of making a choice on their own. This could be a win-win for both communities if they would read the writing on the wall. The reality is that this town will continue to change with or without the help of the school board, city government, county commission. It was my hope that I could help prepare them for the change and in the process create an atmosphere of acceptance for everyone [James Cadwell, electronic communication, 2012.05.15].

Native Americans make up 11% of South Dakota's public school enrollment. They make up 20% of Rapid City's high school students are Native American. In Chamberlain, that number is 38% to 45%. If Rapid City can take time to integrate the traditions of a fifth of its student population into its culminatory ceremony, so can Chamberlain.

Related: The Census Bureau announced this week that for the first time, a tick more than 50% of babies born in the United States of America were a little darker than the Founding Fathers. That's what happens in a nation built on immigration. Welcome to the New World.


  1. Carrie Ackerman-Rice 2012.05.20

    In my 30+ years of teaching (at Marty Indian School, Todd County, and McLaughlin) I never attended a graduation that did not include an honor song by a drum group and the giving of starquilts. They are beautiful parts of graduation. Only in racist communities does this become a negative issue. The non-Indian community can make any excuse they want, but the bottom line is racism pure and simple mixed with a little (or maybe alot) of ignorance.

  2. Donald Pay 2012.05.20

    I love it. I'm so proud of Rapid City Schools for finally incorporating some Indian traditions in the ceremony.

  3. Vickie 2012.05.20

    Kudos to the Rapid City schools and I have to throw the BS flag at the responses from the Chamberlain school board.

  4. rollin potter 2012.05.20

    Let's face it, the only thing the Chamberlain school want from the Lower Brule,Crow Creek tribe and the ST.Joseph Indian School is the Federal Impact money from the Government they receive by sending there youth to Chamberlain so superintendant Johnson can receive her inflated salary and build more buildings with there names on them!!!

  5. Mark 2012.05.21

    The Rapid City School District is clearly sending a message of care, compassion, and community which I think it can point to with pride and its graduates can take to heart as they go forward with their lives.

    Can you imagine if the demographics were reversed and an important tradition of yours was summarily ignored at such a ceremony?

    I hope before next year's commencements, Dr. Mitchell can share with the folks at the Chamberlain School Board how this affected the Rapid City graduates and their families in a positive way.

    After all, isn't that a big part of graduating?

  6. Lynne Colombe 2012.05.21

    On "bringing issues from home," as the reason that there is discrimination and racism in the schools...

    On a brown and white level, this is true. However, the fact of the matter is that the racism and discrimination does exist and even teachers fail to leave their prejudices at home. This is absurd to suggest that people "clean up their home lives," and a derogatory statement as well.

  7. Vickie 2012.05.21

    I agree Lynne.

    I shake my head in disgust at the way some people can be so hurtful and discriminatory towards others for whatever reason. There is no need for that sort of thing.

  8. Douglas Wiken 2012.05.21

    I am still wondering why schools now must have courses tailored to Indian and Hispanic myths or those students will fail to perform. Why did German, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, Danish, Slavs, et all manage to get through school and succeed without having the schools pander to their particular ethnic backgrounds?

  9. larry kurtz 2012.05.21

    This is where you always lose me, Doug: art, language, and heritage are essential to grounding youth lost in the consumer whirlwind of commercial white media.

  10. Bill Fleming 2012.05.21

    Doug, they didn't. It was called Western Civilization and American History. Everything you learned in school was a western civ. pander, brother. You really do seem to have a blind spot there. How come?

  11. Lynne Colombe 2012.05.22

    Nice retort, Bill Flemming. (kudos)

    I appreciate all comments, even those in the "blind side," because at least open conversation suggests an openness to change - hopefully.

    Its scientific really, to evolve and teach what we can, when we can as ethnic minorities; and as recent news states, a combined minority makes the majority.

Comments are closed.