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Chamberlain to Indian Grads: No Honor Song, No Native Symbols

Chamberlain correspondent and Indian rights activist James Cadwell sends distressing news about his local school district's intolerance of its Indian constituents' cultural practices. Cadwell reports that, after three years of requests, the Chamberlain school district continues to forbid the inclusion of a Native American honor song in its 2013 high school commencement exercise. Cadwell says the board cites religious reasons, even though the honor song is not a religious expression, and even though the district opens its commencement exercises with a prayer.

Worse, the Chamberlain board appears to be increasing restrictions on expressions of any cultural identity other than majority White. American Indian students often wear feathers on their caps and star quilts on their shoulders. Some parents tell Cadwell that they are hearing from the school that such expressions of Indian identity may be quashed at this year's commencement exercise as "interruptions" that may result in disciplinary action.

If Cadwell's sources are correct, Chamberlain's actions suggest a manifestation of White Tea Party fear. The country changes. Our neighbors look less and less like ourselves. When America stops looking the way we have envisioned it since our youth, we get antsy. In our desire to keep America the same, we react in negative ways that will make it harder to deal with the inevitable change.

Cadwell's full press release follows:

Chamberlain School Board and Administration again refuses to allow a Lakota/Dakota honor song to be sung for all of the graduating seniors.

Not unlike other ceremonies and songs sung during the event, the honor song is to acknowledge the accomplishments the entire senior class. This is the third year in a row that the school system has rejected this effort to bring the communities of Fort Thompson and Lower Brule together to add additional celebratory efforts to the occasion.

Over the years the school board has stated that they do not allow religion to be part of the ceremony. They are obviously confusing the honor song with a religious ceremony. The honor song is exactly that, a song that acknowledges the efforts of all the students graduating and encourages them to continue their education. Yet the school system has opened the ceremony with a prayer for years. In addition, school concerts have included religious songs as part of the program.

They have said that they do not alter the graduation ceremony but have allowed for exception every year by acknowledging different entities or people for their accomplishments. Most recently they said they needed to see the song in english before they could allow it to be sung, but have since reneged on that commitment of what appeared to be an effort to include the honor song as part of the graduation ceremony.

Nearly 40% of the students that attend Chamberlain Schools are identified as American Indian. In some class rooms the American Indian population is over 50%, yet it would appear that school administration struggles with efforts to acknowledge the cultural diversity in the school district.

Every year Chamberlain receives hundreds of thousands of impact aide dollars from the federal government for every American Indian student enrolled in the school system.

The most recent policy issued by the school system has been interpreted by American Indian parent as being further restrictive. The parents as part of their tradition have placed eagle feathers on their students caps in recognition of the students efforts. In addition star quilts that are now used to replace the buffalo robe are placed over the students shoulders also in recognition for the accomplishment. Parents are being told if these types of efforts are done, the party responsible for the effort and or the student will be removed from the graduation exercise. The parents are also told disciplinary action could be taken toward the student.

In light of the most recent statistics of the graduation rate for American Indian students going from a very low rate of 64% to and even lower rate of 43% nationally it would appear more effort should be made to incorporate American Indian traditions into the school system to help these Native American students with their cultural needs. With the recent adoption of the Oceti Sakowin (Council of Seven Fires) standards on July 25, 2011, it is apparent that the South Dakota Department of Education sees the value in cultural understanding. Schools are to begin implementation of these standards by the fall of 2013. These standards have been in place for nearly two years across the state. Yet few schools are preparing for these changes that could be a contributing factor in improved race relations better test scores for American Indian student and most of all an increased graduation rate [James Cadwell, press release, 2013.04.20].


  1. Roger Elgersma 2013.04.21

    When I was a kid my parents took in foster children. The eleventh one happened to be black. The local Air Force base closed soon after and so she was the only black in the county. Still in a small town who all went to church and no bar and consistently 'good people' there was a petition going around town by the time she was two to keep her out of the christian school. Did not know there was so much prejudice in those good Christian people. Well by the time she got to school there was no one stopping her anymore. But they outnumbered her so much that they felt safe.
    Those religious people in Chamberlain ought to trust God more. If they repent from their sin of oppressing the Native and ask forgiveness, would they trust God to keep them safe. If they do not try that, their religion will not get them to heaven.
    The white guys forget the history of how this situation came about. The Native Americans were more inclusive and accepting of different cultures living together in harmony than most any culture in the world. If they were not the first Pilgrims would have been all killed or died from lack of help from the Natives. Half of them died the first year anyways. There are tribes on the East coast whom we have never had war with. That is why they are not recognized by the BIA since the BIA is there to help those who were persecuted the most.
    Then after the thirteen colonies were started any criminal who could escape to the Appalachian Mountains was safe from the law so lots of criminals settled Kentucky and points west. That is when the real problems started between the white settlers and the Natives. There had been some cultural differences before but not all out war. So once war seemed acceptable, oppresion of the Native became the norm. Some forget that if we are no longer criminals, that we could get allong in harmony with the Natives better than you might guess. But if you do not trust God to make you better, it will not work out.

  2. Kal Lis 2013.04.21

    I don't understand why Chamberlain's school board and/or administration is being stubborn about having the honor song sung. High school graduation has always seemed a community celebration.

    I know it's an apples and oranges comparison, but MLB plays the Canadian national anthem at the start of Toronto Blue Jays game in an U.S. park. If that can happen, the honor song can be performed at a high school graduation.

  3. John 2013.04.21

    It's reassuring to know that racism and bigotry are alive and well in the Chamberlain Schools. We need continuity as opposed to that disruptive "change" or "progress."

  4. Paula 2013.04.21

    Sometimes I just feel completely sad for the direction our society is moving towards. What in the world could be wrong or insulting about having the Native Americans performing an honor song for the graduates; Native American and whatever other nationalities there may be in that school? Good Lord, I would WELCOME the opportunity to have this addition to my kids' graduation ceremonies! It would make them very special, unique, and memorable given the fact that they would have grown up with kids from this culture.

  5. Kelly Fuller 2013.04.21

    Sounds like that school board could use some new Lakota/Dakota members. What a great issue to drive election turnout!

  6. MC 2013.04.21

    "White Tea Party fear."? Wow! This has nothing to with the TEA Party.

    I would honored if they would sing the honor song for my graduating senior.

  7. G-Man 2013.04.21

    Would I be allowed to wear a Scottish kilt at the graduation to express my Scottish cultural heritage?

  8. G-Man 2013.04.21

    Would they allow students of Scottish descent to play a "cultural song" on bagpipes at the graduation?

  9. G-Man 2013.04.21

    The last 2 posts were "rhetorical questions." I just have to disagree with you all on this one. There is a time and there is place to express and honor one's culture and I don't believe a graduation is that place. That is all for now.

  10. Kal Lis 2013.04.21

    Rhetorical question or not, I can almost guarantee that a community with a significant Scottish population will have someone playing bagpipes.

  11. Paula 2013.04.21

    In answer to the question someone posted earlier, if 40% of the graduating class was Scottish, by all means I would welcome bagpipes playing a Scottish honor song. And would happily welcome someone displaying his heritage by wearing a kilt. In fact, everyone should be proud of their individual heritage and express it, in my opinion. The whole issue in Chamberlain is absolutely ridiculous. I'd like to know how many kids or parents would actually be offended by an honor song, and what their reasons are.

  12. joeboo 2013.04.21

    I think graduations are dumb.....

    I don't have a problem with them saying no to an honor song, I know how high schoolers are and if they allow 1 group, then the boys will want to sing some rap song, and the girls will want to sing something and everyone else will want to do something. I understand that issue. It gets to a point where if you start with this it might never end.

    As for not allowing them to wear feathers or other things, I do have an issue with that. There is nothing wrong with that, unless they are concerned about gang symbols which I'm not sure on.

  13. Barry Smith 2013.04.21

    G-man you could wear your kilt to graduation in Canada and here is "Scotland The Brave" played at a high school graduation ceremony. pìob air.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.04.21

    Bagpipes would make commencement 100% better anywhere.

  15. mc 2013.04.21

    Bagpipes? sure. Throne room theme? make it happen. feathers, quilted stars are just fine. The ceremony is about us honoring them and their accomplishment. What ever works, be it one person with a mouth-harp or a full symphony with a choir.

  16. Douglas Wiken 2013.04.22

    Oh well, I don't remember any songs to the glories of lutefisk or lefse and Viking explorers even that there were more than a few Scandinavians around graduation time.

    I see no value whatsoever in anything beyond handing out the diplomas and congratulating each and every student on their accomplishment.

    This is just more crap from the professionals of ethnic specialness and the fallacious wonders of diversity.

  17. G-Man 2013.04.22

    "Cultural Diversity" is best displayed, honored, and celebrated at the many festivals that take place each year in this great nation of ours. That is the time and the place to appropriately honor one's unique culture. A graduation is not the place. A graduation is a celebration of scholastic achievements.

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.04.22

    So Douglas, we can ditch this nonsense of kids handing out roses to their moms during graduation, right? We can stop playing all the music from White/Western culture too, right? We can throw out the graduation robes derived from the Western scholastic tradition, right?

    G, if we are to eliminate all signs of cultural uniqueness, we still have to settle on a cultural framework in which the graduation takes place. Whose culture do we choose? The conquerors' assimilationist culture? Is graduation from high school a melting-pot event?

  19. Douglas Wiken 2013.04.22

    "So Douglas, we can ditch this nonsense of kids handing out roses to their moms during graduation, right? We can stop playing all the music from White/Western culture too, right? We can throw out the graduation robes derived from the Western scholastic tradition, right? "

    Sounds good to me...even if I do like to hear "Pomp and Circumstance". We might also ask if roses and robes is the result of a superb marketing ploy by robe renters and rose sellers.

  20. Kal Lis 2013.04.22

    If we are going to discuss getting rid of rituals that are based on marketing ploys, let's start with the biggest one: prom.

    Graduation is a celebration of accomplishment. Whatever proms celebrates--and I'm positive that proms have nothing to do with accomplishment--the event sucks up far more money than graduation

  21. Donald Pay 2013.04.22

    I think that the honor song would be a great addition. "Pomp and Circumstance" is only a little over a hundred years old, which is more modern than the tradition of honor songs in Lakota and Dakota culture. So, based on longevity of tradition, honor songs win.

    I can see both sides of the argument regarding the wearing of symbols that distinguish different students. The use of common garb for all graduates is meant to show solidarity and equality. In that sense, it serves as a powerful symbol of the equality of graduates, regardless of race, class, gender or sexual orientation. On the other hand, graduates for at least a couple generations have pushed to be seen more as individuals with ties to parents, cultures, and ideologies, as well as to the school. In my day, many students wore peace signs on their hats. In my daughter's day, the students decided to boycott the recessional in order to socialize, hug each other and bat around balloons.

    I think you can have both. Start out the ceremony with students wearing similar garb, but allow students to individualize (within some reasonable limits of taste).

  22. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.04.23

    Donald, the argument that feathers and star quilts inappropriately mark students as individuals and that graduation is meant to show solidarity and equality might drive me all the harder to reject the Chamberlain school board's position. Graduation is the end of our identity as members of the student body. It is the commencement of our independent adult lives. We shed our high school solidarity (to the extent such solidarity exists at all among the cliques) and go our separate ways.

    But if commencement is all about solidarity and equality, what happens when the student population at Chamberlain turns majority Indian? Do we then replace everyone's robes with feathers and star quilts?

    There is a really interesting question here of assimilation vs. multiculturalism that the Chamberlain school board needs to address at its postponed meeting tonight.

  23. Donald Pay 2013.04.23

    Like I said, I see both sides of the argument. With a little thought, people can incorporate both into the graduation ceremony.

  24. Douglas Wiken 2013.04.23

    Proms are another curse and waste. The required wear should be blue or black jeans or slacks with a white shirt or white blouse. They are an insane waste of time and money when they follow the dictates of advertisers and always a mindless diversion.

  25. Jessica Giard 2013.04.25

    Facts: The Chamberlain School Board has not voted on the honor song for 2013 graduation. At the May 13, the board will discuss, and put up for a vote, adding the honor song.

    This week's board meeting was the first time in 2013 the topic of an honor song at graduation was introduced at a meeting. But, the board couldn't vote on it since it wasn't on the agenda or added at the beginning of the meeting (per open meeting laws). Students from Chamberlain made the request Tuesday at the board meeting.

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