Chamberlain School Board to Vote on Graduation Honor Song Performance

May 13, 2013

The Chamberlain School Board plans to vote tonight on whether to include a Lakota Honor song at the school’s graduation ceremony. It’s the second year in a row the request has been made. It was turned down last year in a decision at least one member of the community is calling racist. But while many in Chamberlain would like the song to be added, they say racism is not at the heart of the decision.



Music is a strong part of the Lakota heritage—especially when they come together to celebrate an achievement or honor.  The Lakota culture contains several honor songs—this one, dedicated to the common man, is being played by a group of middle school students from St. Joseph Indian School in Chamberlain. After a prayer and ceremony where tobacco is placed on the drum, the seven students and their instructor perform in perfect rhythm.

Last month, a local resident approached the Board and asked for space in the graduation ceremony for an honor song. The same request was made a year ago, but rejected by the board.

Chamberlain School Superintendent Deb Johnson says, "As far as I know, it was asked of the board last year for the first time—up until that time, I don’t know of any requests. I was high school principal here before I was superintendent for nine years, and there was no request at that time." 

Chamberlain's class of 20-13 is about 30 percent Native American.  Some in the town feel the board will make the same decision for a second straight year, and turn the request down. 

Johnson explains, "Well, it’s the same as it was last year—they would like to keep the graduation ceremony the same as it has been, and not add anything to it." 

Johnson says other requests have been made to break with district tradition—and like the honor song, those have been rejected as well.

LaRayne Woster teaches Native American Studies at St. Joseph Indian School on the north end of Chamberlain.  Native students stay at the facility’s dorms and attend lower grades there, but attend public high school in Chamberlain.  Woster really isn’t sure why the honor song is not welcomed at the graduation.

As Woster says, "If it’s no because it has to do with prayer—let’s address that. Because there are honor songs that are sung that don’t have prayer words in them. And there are many. There are honor songs that are just vocables and chants, that don’t have any words. So that can be left out."

Really, Chamberlain has always been known as a community of division—at least from a geographical standpoint. The community of roughly 25 hunded people lies at the eastern edge of Lake Francis Case. Cross the Interstate 90 bridge in either direction over the lake, and the scenery changes dramatically—the true demarcation of East River and West River.

Given centuries of tension between Native Americans and whites in South Dakota, and the fact Chamberlain is just south of two reservations and has a large Native population—one may assume a racial division exists. The man who made the request for the honor song could not be reached for this story, but told the Rapid City Journal not allowing the honor song is blatant racism.  St. Joseph Indian School Native American Studies teacher LaRayne Woster says she’s sure that’s not the case.

Woster says "Chamberlain is a beautiful, awesome, caring, giving, kind, generous, coming-together community. We have done lot of wonderful things as a community—I really dislike that our community is being portrayed in a racist way—that that word is used--and I think that word is used too quick—no."

People taking care of business on the streets of Chamberlain don’t see an issue with the song either. According to one, "I think sometimes people get upset or confused by something that is not in English—and I think if people saw the translation, I think they’d see it’s a good song for everybody."

Speaking of the board's decision, another person says "I totally disagree with that—we have a lot of Native American kids, and I think if they’re gonna go through the work to graduate, they have a right to have their honor song."

Another who wouldn’t mind seeing the break from Chamberlain’s tradition is Shandra Thomas—she grew up in Chamberlain, and is assistant editor of the Chamberlain Sun newspaper. Thomas says the request made last year came six days before the graduation, so she can understand the board’s concerns with that time frame. But in her opinion, it probably wouldn’t be a big issue to include the honor song.

Thomas says, "I guess I can see both sides—if you’re gonna allow something for one group—you should allow it for all or none; but I also see their request to have the honor song, so it’s kind of a toss-up how you feel about the situation."

Father Stephen Huffstetter runs Chamberlain’s 80-year-old St. Joseph Indian School. He says the honor song would mark another step forward for what he considers a tolerant community.

Father Hufstetter says, "When we first started our students to Chamberlain 25 years ago, they were some of the few Native Americans in the system; but now, there’s a lot of students, and they come down from Fort Thompson, Crow Creek and stuff—they started having a pow wow a few years ago, and they’ve made some steps. So I think they’re getting better at it, and I think they have good will."

The idea brought up by James Cadwell, that the Chamberlain School Board would refuse to include the song because of a bias toward Native Americans, bothers Board President Rebecca Reimer.

Reimer points out, "Chamberlain is hosting, or the Native American Club is hosting, for the first time ever, a feathering ceremony in our community; in our school. And I think people don’t realize, that unfortunately, we’ve focused on the negative, or what’s not happening, instead of what is happening—and I wish we could look at that in more detail; and just looked at."

Reimer says there would be no issue with performing the honor song as a part of the upcoming feathering ceremony. Tonight (Monday night), the board votes to determine if the honor song is part of the school’s graduation Sunday afternoon.