It may be performed at an assembly, superintendent says, but not at graduation
By Nick Lowrey
The seven-member board voted 4-2 with one member abstaining for conflict of interest.
District Superintendent Debra Johnson said that she and Chamberlain High School’s principal, Allen Bertram, have been working to devise an all-school assembly to be held each spring that will include an honor song for seniors.
“We will have an honor song at our school, but it won’t be at graduation,” Johnson said.
Then, in November, the board revisited the issue and again rejected it, this time 4-2, citing language differences and length of the existing graduation program, as well as concerns that authorizing the song would give the appearance of favoring one culture over another.
None of these arguments seems particularly germane or compelling.
“Because we have never done it” is a cliché non-argument. The feathering ceremony, new this year, was held for Indian students earlier and separate from Chamberlain High’s baccalaureate, so it should not be linked to this discussion. Worry that an added three-minute song would cause the graduation time schedule to become unwieldy seems thin. And, finally, to imply that the Lakota language is somehow a foreign tongue that has no place in a Western American school, even in a wholly positive application, is, at best, petty. Lakota was spoken here before whites arrived; it is an inescapable, and valuable, part of the American historical experience. Surely, we can find it in our hearts to be enriched and not threatened by a Lakota honor song.
Possibly the most pertinent statement in this entire controversy was from board president Reimer, who said the issue is not about students, academics or even the song. “It’s about control and power. It’s about control and power,” she said, twice. “I’m extremely disappointed in a handful of people.”
By Christina Rose
A letter from 1954 has resurfaced, written by then Mayor Herschel V. Melcher, who wrote that the people of the city of Chamberlain are opposed to “having Indians in our schools or living in the unsanitary conditions about the city.” “We have no intention of making an Indian comfortable around here, especially an official,” Melcher wrote.
Attached to the letter is a resolution refusing to allow tribal offices in the town. The resolution was signed by Commissioners O.L. McDonal, Frank G. Knippling, Willard A. Wilin, and R.C. Martin. The letter was in opposition to relocating the Indian Office from Fort Thompson, South Dakota to Chamberlain.
No one involved in the quest for the Honor Song believes that the entire town of Chamberlain is as blatantly racist as it was more than half a century ago. However, there is a prevailing assumption that the tug-of-war over a song to honor all students is at least partly due to the racist history of the town.
Below: "Students and supporters of last year’s Honor Song gathered outside the Chamberlain Armory in front of the graduation procession and played the Honor Song for the graduates. They will do so again this year." (James Cadwell)