Native American Students Petition for Honor Song at Their Graduation

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Today is Friday, May 17, 2013.


There was an article in The Daily Republic out of Mitchell, SD, about the Chamberlain Pubic Schools refusing a petition by the Native American members of the 2013 graduating class to have a Native American Honor Song sung at their graduation ceremony.  You can read the entire article here.

The school web sitehas published demographic figures from 2007, which is common – public schools never seem to release their current figures.  (You have to go to the bottom of the home page and click on “About Us” to get the demographics.)  Basically, in 2007, the school had a total of 910 kids in grades pre-K through 12th grade.  They had just under 300 kids in high school, grades 9-12.  The number of kids in a school doesn’t change that drastically from year to year, so if you take the number of kids they had in 2007,  there may be around 75 kids graduating this spring.   The demographics for the district as a whole were as follows in 2007:  63% white, 35% Native American, less than 1% Black and less than 1% Hispanic.  It doesn’t look like there were any Asians.  So we have basically two cultures represented in the Chamberlain School District, the general “white American” culture and the Native American culture, specifically the culture of Lakota Indians from the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.

For this year’s graduation ceremony, the Native American kids petitioned that they be allowed to sing an Honor Song in celebration of the graduates.  The local school  board voted 6-1 to deny the kids their petition, saying that 1) they did not want to favor one culture over another, 2) time constraints and 3) the song was in another language.  The Chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Brandon Sazue, is trying to persuade Superintendent Debra Johnson to overrule her school board’s decision.

I feel strongly that the Native kids in this school should be able to sing their Honor Song, and here’s why.

First of all, the graduation rate for Native Americans in South Dakota as a whole is abysmal.  According to the Native Sun News on March 25, 2013, Native American graduation rates in South Dakota dropped from 65% to 42% within the last two years.  In other words, less than half of all Native American students in South Dakota manage to graduate from high school!

Compare this with the graduation rate of Chamberlain School, which is a stellar 98.6%, or it was in 2007, anyway.  This means that the Native American kids who go to the Chamberlain School are fortunate, indeed, because most of them will have managed to acquire a high school diploma.  Isn’t this enough reason already to have a song sung in their honor?

The excuse that the board doesn’t want to favor one culture over another is totally lame.  If they had a significant group of kids from some other cultures, say from Mexico or somewhere in Asia, then OK, I can see where there might be accusations of favoritism, but frankly, schools all over this country favor the “white American culture” over every other “subculture” every single day of the school year.  If they really don’t want to be accused of favoritism, they should allow the Native American students a cultural presence in the graduation ceremony.

The excuse that they are worried about the length of the ceremony is laughable, as well.  With only 75 or so students graduating, I don’t think the ceremony will last that long.  I have no idea how long the Honor Song lasts, but surely the kids could compromise here, if necessary.  Perhaps they could limit the song to five or ten minutes.  Surely that is not excessive.

The excuse that the song is in another language is also pretty idiotic.  Of course it’s in another language!  But it can be translated, and it would be a great experience for the Native American kids to work with their Elders to translate the song into English and have it printed up as an insert in the graduation program.

If you feel as I do and wish to make your feelings known, email Superintendent Debra Johnson as soon as possible.  Her email is:   If you wish to call the school, the phone for the Administration Office is 605-234-4477.  The mailing address is: Chamberlain School, Superintendent Debra Johnson, 301 EAST KELLAM STREET  PO Box 119, Chamberlain SD 57325.  

Here is my own email to Superintendent Johnson:

I am a retired educator and resident of South Dakota. I read an article from The Daily Republic in Mitchell, SD, which is being circulated on Facebook.

I looked up your school profile and saw your population and demographics for 2007. If things haven’t changed that drastically, you have perhaps 75 kids graduating, at least 25 of them Native American. With the generally dismal graduation rate for Native Americans in this state, the students of Chamberlain Schools should be very proud to be graduating. (Your web site says you have a 98.6% graduation rate. I certainly hope that hasn’t changed!)

The published demographics for your school are 36% Native American, 63% white, and less then 1% each Black and Hispanic. When your school board decided not to allow the Native American students to sing an honor song, your reasons were that it would favor one culture over another. But aren’t you already favoring general “American” culture over Native American culture – and don’t you do this the vast majority of the time? If you had more Hispanics or if you had a few Asians or something, I could see your not wanting to favor one culture over another, but honestly, this just smacks of racism, pure and simple.

You also mentioned as reasons for denial that the song was in another language. Well, of course it is, and more power to the young people for learning their native language. Where I taught, in St. Paul, MN, over 100 languages were spoken, and I dealt with all the non-English speakers because I was an ESL teacher. We solved a lot of our “language problems” by the simple expedient of translating the material. It would be a great exercise for the kids to translate their Honor Song into English and have it printed up in the bulletin for people to read. Surely this can be accomplished with a minimum of fuss.

You mentioned the time element. I have no idea how long this Honor Song takes, but with so few students in your graduating class, don’t you think it would be OK to allow the students five or ten minutes for a song that would make them proud to be graduating? And could not this Honor Song be sung in praise of ALL your students?

Please, please re-think your decision!

Linda LeBoutillier
Brandon, SD


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