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Chamberlain Faces Civil Rights Complaint for Banning Discussion of Honor Song

Last March, the Chamberlain School Board received a letter from the King (as in Martin Luther King. Jr.) Center for Nonviolent Social Change asking the board to recognize the ongoing request of many of its constituents to include a Lakota honor song in its high school graduation ceremony. Long-time Chamberlain resident and Indian rights advocate James Cadwell asked the Board for an opportunity to discuss that letter publicly at its April meeting. Chamberlain superintendent Deb Johnson responded thus:


You will be placed on the April 14 school board agenda under the 'delegation' portion to address the topic: Resolution Recognizing District-Wide Cultural Competence (7/12/10). You will be granted five minutes to present comments to the board. Please note that the honor song will not be addressed or discussed... [Supt. Deb Johnson, e-mail to James Cadwell, Chamberlain School District, 2014.04.10].

Ah, the administrative passive voice, a sure sign someone is saying something unpleasant that she doesn't want to own.

The Mitchell Daily Republic called the banning of discussion of the honor song unconstitutional. James Cadwell calls the speech ban a violation of his civil rights, and in July, he submitted a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights:

6. Describe the discrimination: On what basis were you discriminated against?

Race; retaliation—I received a letter from superintendent Debra Johnson of the Chamberlain public schools that I would not be allowed to participate in the Chamberlain school board's meeting because I wanted to talk about the Native American honor song and the letter of support that was sent for the honor song from the Martin Luther King center in Atlanta, Georgia. I was also told by the school board president Rebecca Reimer that the honor song issue is a dead issue and we will not be talking about it anymore.

...8. What would you like the institution to do as a result of your complaint?

Follow their own bylaws and allow everyone to speak openly about their concerns with school policy. Resend the motion and change the bylaws back to allowing a subject to be discussed more than one time. This came about at the exact time the denial was given for further discussion of the honor song. And remove the change in length of time that was additionally imposed as a result of the request to further discuss the honor song. There currently are no Native American people serving on the school board, The time allowed for input was 10 minutes and has now been reduced to 5 minutes unless approved by the school board, as no Native American peers serve on the board this has never happened. I have seen many non-native people exceed the 5 minute rule without consequences being imposed. I however have been held to the 5 minute rule with a stop watch. Nearly 40% of the students in this school are Native American [James Cadwell, text submitted in support of civil rights complaint to U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, July 2014].

This complaint has bite because it speaks the one language that every school board understands—money:

OCR is responsible for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), 42 U.S.C. §2000d, and its implementing regulation, 34 C.F.R. Part 100. Title VI prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from the Department from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

As a recipient of Federal financial assistance from the Department, the District is subject to Title VI [Joshua Douglass, supervisory attorney, Office of Civil Rights, letter to James Cadwell, 2014.09.03].

The Chamberlain school district receives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in Federal Impact Aid as compensation for the large number of American Indian students from families living on federal, non-tax-generating property. According to the board's June 23 minutes, as of May 31, the district had a balance of $2.66 million in its Impact Aid account.

If the OCR finds Chamberlain is violating civil rights by stifling discussion of the Lakota honor song, it can order the board to remedy the situation or lose that valuable federal funding.The OCR acts on the authority of Title VI and federal dollars. A ruling on this one point would say to Chamberlain that it has been acting in ways that could cause it to lose a big chunk of federal dollars. Thanks to the cowardly misers we send to Pierre, Chamberlain and other school districts can't afford to lose a penny. If the OCR rules in favor of Cadwell on his complaint, it will hang a sword of Dollarcles over the Chamberlain school board's heads... a sword sharpened by Republicans themselves.

The Chamberlain school board could render this complaint and this threat to its federal funding moot with six simple words: "Mr. Cadwell, the floor is yours." They could let him speak at length about the King letter, the honor song, and civil rights. They wouldn't even have to respond, just listen. Listening isn't that hard... unless it's an invitation to a conversation that you don't want to have.


  1. mike from iowa 2014.09.24

    and,Cory,I will loan you my trusty Coleman Little Sioux River Special lantern so you can search Pierre for an honest wingnut.

  2. larry kurtz 2014.09.24

    There is a straight line from denying First Amendment rights for American Indians to Watertown High School rewriting history.

  3. Craig 2014.09.25

    Larry, Watertown isn't attempting to rewrite anything. They freely admit their story is fictitious and aren't trying to pass it off as even being based on real events. It is an allagory - a parable - a metaphor for how coming together makes us all stronger - something we could all learn from. Nothing more, nothing less.

    As to Chamberlain, why is this only an issue there? I know of many cities in South Dakota which graduate large amounts of Native Americans, yet I'm unfamiliar with the concept of an honor song. I'll admit I am not as close to some of these cities as I once was, but are other school boards also refusing to allow the song to be performed, or is this unique to a specific group of Native Americans in the Chamberlain region?

    Second, what is the school board's primary reason/excuse for not allowing the song? Is this song religious in nature? Is the Chamberlain community as a whole against the performance? Are they anti-culture? Do they fear this could result in every group demanding some performance to honor them (a song for girls, a song for boys, a song for athletes, a song for members of the FFA, a song for anyone with Swedish descent, etc.)? Or is it that they honestly are going out of their way to create a rift by spending days and days each year discussing and debating the issue and trying to justify it when the song itself would probably only last around 200 seconds?

    Anyone from Chamberlain that cares to explain?

  4. larry kurtz 2014.09.25

    Craig: Watertown has a long history of lousy relations with tribal members just like Chamberlain does. The honor song at Rapid City Central graduation is a majestic but somber ceremony where everyone stands as it is sung.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.09.25

    Craig, the board has no coherent excuse. In the past, they have justified their resistance with excuses ranging from (as I wrote on November 27, 2013)"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.

    Chamberlain has been a focal point in the debate on including Native cultural elements to honor Native graduates in school ceremonies. If the honor song wins in Chamberlain, perhaps it will set a precedent for more authentic honoring ceremonies in all South Dakota communities with Native populations seeking equal regard in local culture.

  6. Craig 2014.09.25

    I just cannot fathom why they want to be associated with such negativity year after year. Why not go the route of Rapid City (thanks Larry) and just play the song? Unless the song is offensive or inflammatory or overtly religious... where is the harm?

    The amount of effort exerted to promote an exclusionary environment is mind-boggling.

  7. mike from iowa 2014.09.25

    Lakota Honor Song does not fit neatly in whitey wingnuts organized little,privileged world.

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