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 [dictionary.com].
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 [dictionary.com].
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.