Will the Chamberlain School District allow a Native honor song to be performed at the upcoming graduation ceremony?

Will South Dakota School District Allow Native Honor Song at Graduation?


The Chamberlain School District in South Dakota is expected to vote May 13 on whether to allow a Native American honor song to be performed at the graduation ceremony May 19.

The district has rejected requests for the Lakota/Dakota song to be performed the last three years according to James Cadwell, a bilingual instructor for the Crow Creek tribal schools.

Cadwell, a parent of three children who have gone through the Chamberlain district, has been leading the charge to get the honor song performed at the graduation ceremony.

“Over the years the school board has stated that they do not allow religion to be part of the ceremony. They are obviously confusing the honor song with a religious ceremony,” he said in a press release. “The honor song is exactly that, a song that acknowledges the efforts of all the students graduating and encourages them to continue their education.”

He says the school should honor its Native student population, which is high, because the school receives aid from the federal government for each Native student enrolled.

According to Chamberlain Superintendent Debra Johnson 28 percent of the graduating class is Native American, but that number will increase as the younger students graduate. She reports that 39 percent of the high school is Native American, 38 percent of the middle school is, and 45 percent of the children in the elementary school are Native.

Johnson told the Argus Leader the school hasn’t allowed the honor song during graduation because the board “wanted to keep the graduation ceremony in the tradition that it has been.”

Cadwell feels it’s more than that—racism.

“Yes, I think racism is at play in this decision,” he told the Argus Leader. “That comes from the last 12 years of living here. There’s a mentality here. ... I don’t know; I just really wish it wasn’t here.”

Johnson says the district has done other things to embrace the Native population, like incorporating the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understanding and Standards into the curriculum. The standards require all students in South Dakota to have an understanding of tribal culture. The standards were completed in July 2011, and approved by the South Dakota Board of Education.

Johnson also told the Argus Leader that the school’s Native American Club holds a powwow and that district staff travels to the reservations to meet with parents and teach them how to access their children’s grades online.

“We really try to reach out and talk with our parents and families and provide events for them that are beneficial for them and their children,” she told the newspaper.

Cadwell’s frustration in not allowing the honor song at Chamberlain as of yet is not helped by the fact that other districts in South Dakota do allow honor songs at graduation.

“I view the honor song as a song that honors all our graduates, not just our Native American graduates,” Bruce Carrier, superintendent at Winner for the last two years and Lyman before that, told the Argus Leader. Both districts allow the honor song at graduation. “I believe it has added to our graduation exercise.”

The Rapid City and Pierre school districts also allow the honor song during graduation.

An Argus Leader reader poll shows 69 percent of people think the school district should allow the tribal honor song and 30 percent thinks the school should not—364 votes were cast.

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Nick Estes's picture
Nick Estes
Submitted by Nick Estes on
In the early 1950s, Chamberlain strongly opposed "integration" of Native students in the public schools and equal housing opportunities. The former Brule County Commission and City Commission unanimously adopted resolutions against integration and published rants and threats of violence against anyone who rented property to Indians or any Indians coming into to Chamberlain. More recently, the attorney for St. Joe's Indian School (in Chamberlain) and state legislators from Brule County (Chamberlain) and Lyman County sponsored legislation to raise the statute of limitations for civil action for sexual assault victims of boarding schools, thus quashing any formal public recognition of the sexual violences experienced at boarding schools. To not allow something as simple as an honor song at a graduation ceremony is not surprising given the history of Chamberlain, a history many are reluctant or amnesiac to recall. I, too, was a graduate of Chamberlain, and we did not have an honor song. It was simply unthinkable at the time, especially given that fellow classmates would chant "get the f*** out my country, you f******" at me and my friends at lunch. It is harrowing to think that simply praying and practicing any cultural belief in you OWN lands would be banned. Surprising for a town like Chamberlain? Not unless you remember the Lakota name for Chamberlain is Maka Thipi, or cave dwellers.