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Native Sun News: School district outlaws debate on honor song

The following story was written and reported by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

An honor song was performed after the graduation ceremony at Chamberlain High School in South Dakota in May. Still image from YouTube

Honoring song ‘nixed’ at Chamberlain school
By Karin Eagle
Native Sun News Staff Writer

CHAMBERLAIN — Despite a letter coming from one of the biggest names in civil rights, the Chamberlain School Board still reaffirms its stand that the topic of an honoring song for graduates will “never” be allowed at their meetings.

In April, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta sent a letter to the board in support of the honor song. Bernice King, daughter of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., signed the letter.

Now the school board is being investigated for possible civil rights violations. The violation charges stem from the attempts made by James Cadwell and Lynn Hart to formally present a letter of support from the King Center of Atlanta, Georgia for the honor song.

In an email dated April 8, 2014 from the superintendent of Chamberlain Schools Deb Johnson, Cadwell was told he could no longer bring up the Honor song and that she, Superintendent Johnson, was informed by the board to not allow Cadwell to be put on the April 15, 2014 agenda to discuss the honor song.

Ironically, at the very meeting Cadwell had requested to participate in order to introduce the letter of support from the King Center, the board modified the rules surrounding public participation and input and approved an amendment to read that subjects brought up by the public can only be discussed once.

In addition they also amended their policy about length of time and now restrict the amount of time they can be discussed. With the recent attempt by the board to build a new $13.5 million dollar multipurpose building the public has addressed this issue meeting after meeting with no opposition from the board or restriction of the amount of time spent on the discussion.

According to Cadwell, it appears that the restriction to issue of the Native American Honor song is an attempt by the board to eliminate public input on subjects they are not in favor of. The whole idea behind public input is to help the board understand and to sway the boards decisions with the public exercising its desires.

Previously the board rejected a petition that was signed by over 200 of the staff and students of the Chamberlain Schools who were in favor of the honor song. In one of the responses to the petition board member Jay Blum made reference to hearsay, stating that he talked to a friend of a friend who said he was told by a student that he the student felt pressured in to signing the petition.

YouTube: CHS Honor Song 2014

In the past Chamberlain School Board President Rebecca Riemers told the public at one of the meeting that the issue of the honor song is “dead” and would not be discussed again.

Additional comments listed in the Civil Rights complaint include those made by council member Casey Hutmaker telling the public during a board meeting that "Chamberlain school is an English speaking school, we speak English here we don't need any other language" as he allegedly made reference to the honor song.

Additional comments in the same meeting found Hutmaker saying "we say the Pledge of Allegiance here that's all we need.”

Board member Dallas Thompson made reference to Crow Creek Sioux Tribe with this statement, “Those people have all kinds of problems up there they need to straighten out their own issues. These kids are doing just fine until those adults got involved!"

The request for the honor song has received national support from the King Center, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association, with additional support of South Dakotas largest newspaper both in and out of Indian Country and the South Dakota Indian Education Association who moved their conference as a direct result of the honor song denial by the school board.

The minority population in the Chamberlain schools has increased to nearly 40% in the past few years with Native American students making up over 38% of that population. In addition some of the Elementary classrooms Native American population exceeds 50%.

In a letter received by Mr. Cadwell dated September 3, 2014 the United States Department of Education office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into alleged discrimination on the basis race.

The Office of Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), 42 U.S.C 200d and its implementing regulation, 34 C.F.R. Part 100. Title VI prohibits recipients of Federal 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. An Education Department spokesman confirmed that an investigation started Sept. 3.

Chamberlain Superintendent Debra Johnson confirmed that the district received a letter from the Office of Civil Rights on Sept. 8. The letter indicated that a complaint had been filed against the district.

"We are complying with the Office of Civil Rights and have no further comment at this time as the complaint is under investigation," Johnson said.

The last vote rejecting the honor song request came in December. School board members defended the vote, arguing that a feathering ceremony takes place the night before graduation.

At least four other school districts with large Native populations allow honor songs during graduation ceremonies. The honor song, Cadwell said, isn't intended just for Native graduates, but for all graduating seniors.

"Really, what it boils down to is it's something they don't want to talk about," said Cadwell," They're not stopping anybody from saying anything about that," he said.

(Contact Karin Eagle at

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