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Chamberlain Board Cites ‘Compromise,’ ‘Decorum’ to Marginalize Lakota Honor Song

Without even getting to a vote, administrators in Chamberlain have put themselves back squarely in the middle of contentious issue: whether to include a Lakota honor song at Chamberlain High's commencement ceremony. If the debate continues along the lines that it did this past spring, this central South Dakota school district risks appearances of disinterest or discrimination toward its Native American students, who made up 39% of its high school population last school year.

The school board postponed a vote on the honor song question Monday night after board member Marcel Felicia, new to the body since last spring's controversy, spoke about the value of including the song. During Felicia's speech, board president Rebecca Reimer believed that the new member had improperly solicited a response from community members in attendance. Reimer warned Felicia about this breach of decorum, and the board president left the room for a private conversation with Felicia and Chamberlain Superintendent Debra Johnson during an ensuing 10-minute meeting recess.

Though Johnson won't discuss the contents of that private conversation, she uses language that's typical of a representative of the establishment who's seeking to silence a troubling voice of dissent:

Johnson, the superintendent, said Reimer was telling Felicia that he was acting outside agreed-upon decorum for board meetings.

“He had asked a question of the audience and was asking for a response,” Johnson said. “That’s just not the protocol we use in our meetings. If people want to speak, they are listed on the agenda. We need to follow the procedures” [Jon Walker, "Chamberlain pursues 'compromise' with Lakota song for graduation," That Sioux Falls Paper, 2013.11.27]

Though words like 'protocol' and 'decorum' sound non-threatening and egalitarian ("Nothing personal; everybody has to work within the system"), they hide the fact that systems are often set up very deliberately to advance the interests of the historically advantaged and minimize the chance that anyone can topple conventional practice, even when conventional practice may be unfair or may otherwise warrant change.

Unfortunately, an awkward insistence on decorum, tradition, protocol and procedures is not new to Chamberlain's debate over the high school graduation ceremony.

In May, when James Cadwell brought a request for the honor song to the school board, responses ranged from a stick-with-the-status-quo sidestep from Superintendent Johnson to board member comments that included some rambling from the then-Chairperson and a thinly veiled indictment of some Native students' home lives from another board member.

Now, Johnson says she and principal Allan Bertram have been talking with students ... talking about alternatives to including the song:

“Compromise is the word,” Johnson said Tuesday night.

“The principal and I have been working with Native American students as to what they might like to do if the honor song is not at graduation,” she said. “If not at graduation, what would they like to do? That’s what the board is looking at, the board allowing the honor song, but maybe not at the graduation setting” [Walker, 2013.11.27]

Compromise is indeed the word, but I think Johnson is confusing two of the word's meanings.

Johnson seems to think that she's working with students toward 'compromise' by this definition:

com-pro-mise [kom-pruh-mahyz] noun
1. a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands [].

And such compromise is among the many virtues one might hope to teach high school students as they learn about interacting with each other and the world around them. Such compromise is about each side working to understand the position of the other and also about each side taking a step away from its respective self-valuing perspective and toward a shared and mutually agreed-upon outcome.

However, when one side is setting all the ground rules and the other simply must find an alternative that fits within those rules as already established, the more accurate definition of 'compromise' is this one:

com-pro-mise [kom-pruh-mahyz] noun
4. an endangering, especially of reputation; exposure to danger, suspicion, etc.: a compromise of one's integrity [].

That kind of compromise—the kind that asks those who already lack agency within the system to compromise their beliefs, compromise their identity, compromise their culture—is one that's been taught to generations of Native Americans in our state and our nation. It deserves no continued voice from superintendents, principals, school boards, or anyone else in a diverse society.

Felicia, the school board member who earned a 10-minute time-out on Monday night, shows that he understands the difference between seeking an agreement or common understanding and asking Lakota students to defer the controlling majority. He questions, as do I, whether either compromise really applies when the question is fundamentally one of inclusion and cultural respect:

Felicia said he was puzzled by Johnson’s reference to a compromise.

“What is there to compromise [first definition]? The song is played to honor all senior students. Why should you compromise [second definition] that?” [Walker, 2013.11.27]

The board is scheduled to take a vote on including the honor song at its December 9 meeting, provided no one does anything as indecorous as asking for public commentary on the matter while in session.


  1. grudznick 2013.11.27

    I don't get the gruntelment. Many schools with far fewer American Indian students probably have Honor Songs to honor the graduating children. Even of there were zero American Indian children graduating if a fellow or group of fellows came to a school to honor the graduates with a traditional song from this region I can't search my brain for why it would not be allowed.

  2. Roger Cornelius 2013.11.27

    Compromise my ass!!!
    The superintendent and principal are in positions of authority, Native Americans student aren't. The administration and the school board will make the call regardless of what students want or what is right.

    It is odd that this subject comes up during the Thanksgiving season, apparently in Chamberlain the holiday has no significance other than stuffing their faces.

    In typical backward thinking these South Dakotans choose not to honor the achievement of these young men and women by citing procedure, protocol or some other nonsense. These actions by the Chamberlain schools contribute more to the racial divide in this state and intensify hate by both sides.
    If the Chamberlain school board choose their form of compromise and does not allow the honoring songs for Native American students, I suggest a gathering of Sioux to do the Ghost Dance during entire ceremony.

  3. Deb Geelsdottir 2013.11.27

    What are they afraid of? I don't understand. I wonder if the board has gotten themselves into the position of obstinacy. They don't want the honor song because they didn't want it before. Nobody is going to tell them what to do.

    It all bears a striking resemblance to racism.

  4. oldguy 2013.11.28

    I can't understand why the fuss over a song. Really what is the harm in a few minutes song. Pierre does it and it hasn't harm anything. I can't believe people, it's a song.............

  5. rollin potter 2013.11.28

    As i stated a long time ago on this blog site. The school likes that federal impact aid check they get for the native american children from the lower brule and crow creek reservations and the students from the st.Joseph indian school but just come to school and don't speak up!!!!!!

  6. Charlie Hoffman 2013.11.28

    OldGuy had it not been for a few kind Native's showing a few naïve white guys what to eat during the cold months out East long ago we would be either speaking Spanish or whatever Native language was spoken back East three hundred and fifty years ago.

    I could not agree with you more on this one oldguy.

  7. Jenny 2013.11.28

    Typical South Dakota racism in a typical small narrow-minded SD town run by white men. Yep, it's racism, bigotry, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, ignorance, stupidity, pettiness. I wouldn't send my kid to a school that showed that much disrespect over a song that honors another ethnic group. Get over yourselves, you ignorant South Dakotans! Show some respect for your native American neighbors.

  8. grudznick 2013.11.28

    Isn't the school board president a woman, Ms. Jenny? A typical small-town white woman, who chastised a nice man who brought up the question. Stop being so sexist Ms. Jenny.

  9. John 2013.11.28

    Run the demographics - how many years until Indians are the majority of the student body . . . then maybe they'll let the ancestors of the land thieves have an honor song.

    There is nothing improper with applying the golden rule here - treating others as one would want to be treated.

  10. interested party 2013.11.28

    grud: does Wall High School do the honor song?

  11. daj 2013.11.28

    School board meetings are meetings held in a public setting. They are not a public meeting with open discussion with the audience. School boards generally do set aside time for public comment on agenda or non agenda items but can not discuss employees in a public setting.

  12. Rorschach 2013.11.28

    Why does this school board see the need to upset 39% of its students and families every year by denying them the right to honor all graduates with a traditional song? I just don't get it either. Saying the pledge in SF schools is easy to do, and allowing an honor song is easy to do, and both result in a positive experience for most. Fighting either of those things is just guaranteed to result in a lot of hard feelings. School board members need to learn how to pick their battles better.

  13. grudznick 2013.11.28

    The honor song, Mr. Kurtz, or an honor song? To me, there are many songs which can be honor songs, and several can not be told apart by most who don't hear Lakotah with a practiced ear.

  14. Roger Cornelius 2013.11.28

    Over the years and all around the country, I have been to events that honor other cultures and ethnic groups, I have heard honor songs, tribute songs and a few national anthems from other countries.
    When a honor song or anthem is announced, you show respect, you don't need to understand the words.

    The Chamberlain School Board is missing a real opportunity by not allowing the honor song. What an opportunity to be a "leader" in reconciliation instead of the typical South Dakota demonstration of racism

  15. Douglas Wiken 2013.11.28

    Bring back bows and arrows. Sanctify more rocks and hills. Celebrate primitive nonsense. As usual our native friends are requesting a special privilege while claiming equality.

    It sure does generate press coverage. I suspect that is what is actually desired. Now if we can just find honor songs for the Germans, Swedes, English, Danes, Armenians, Latvians, Norwegians, Italians, Spanish, Romanians, Russians, French, Slavs, Iranians, Iraqis, Jewish, et all. Might as well turn a graduation program into a whole day of music and equality.

  16. Roger Cornelius 2013.11.28

    Like death and taxes, you can always count on Wilken's cruelty.

  17. Douglas Wiken 2013.11.28

    Like constipation followed by diarrhea, Roger drops another load.

    Happy Thanksgiving anyway, Roger. I think it is cruel to delude Native American children that something leftover from a culture dependent on slaying bison from the back of a horse and slaughtering indigenous agricultural Native tribes is the answer for success in the modern world. I believe Native American children are as intelligent and capable as any white children, but they need encouragement from elders rather than more excuses for failure.

  18. Roger Cornelius 2013.11.28


    Talk about constipation of the mind and diarrhea of the mouth, Wilken is spewing again.

    If you were at the first Thanksgiving, those bows and arrow would have served a purpose.

  19. Jenny 2013.11.28
    Recently, I heard about a tragedy in Duluth MN that happened long ago and had me tearing up as I read it. But then decades later at a grass-roots level, the townspeople, determined to open up their dark history and not let the victims be forgotten, came together to take a stand against racism, apathy prejudice. Someday, I would like to go onto a SD newspaper website and read about a SD (any SD town) town facing their racisms, prejudices, stereotypes head on instead of petty cruelness and indifference. But then, that might just be too much to ask for, but I guess there's always hope.

  20. Roger Cornelius 2013.11.28

    That is a great idea, but one that most likely can not be comprehended by many South Dakotans.

    As long as are there are South Dakotans with a Wilken-like mentality, and there are plenty, race relations will continue to simmer and hate will intensify.

    Wilken seems to think that all Native Americans fit his mold since he speaks in such generalities. He professes his concern for Native American children while at the same time disparaging their ever changing cultural challenges.

    Native Americans are seeking media coverage, note that the school board brought this issue up, nor do they seek special privilege, what they do seek is an honoring of their achievements by a traditional honoring song.

    It would be just as easy to embrace their success as to belittle them with an entire ceremony geared to white students.

  21. grudznick 2013.11.28

    Mr. Cornelius, I think you missed my post and point that I am in favor of the honor song being sung. I favor it. I disagree with this school board.

    My post to Larry about his untrained ear was a bit of an inside joke from something a few years ago.

  22. Roger Cornelius 2013.11.28

    Mr. grudz,

    Sorry for misunderstanding. I thought it should be clarified that you don't have understand the words, just the intent of a honoring song.

  23. grudznick 2013.11.28

    Indeed. A good point with which I agree.

Comments are closed.