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Brandon Sazue Sr.

Crow Creek chairman calls for Chamberlain boycott

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CHAMBERLAIN -- Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Brandon Sazue wants Chamberlain Superintendent Debra Johnson to override her school board's decision to not allow an American Indian honor song at Chamberlain High School's graduation Sunday.

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Sazue, who called the board's decision "racism at its best," also is launching a boycott of Chamberlain businesses, is demanding the school return an honorary eagle staff to the tribe, and is asking Wells Fargo Bank to issue a statement of support for the affected students.

"From day one, Indians have been fighting. We are tired of fighting and arguing against the wall," Sazue said. "So it's time to take action. I'm tired of talking."

The controversy began when American Indian students circulated a petition asking that a traditional honor song be allowed at graduation to commemorate the heritage of Indian students, who make up approximately 35 percent of the district's enrollment.

The Chamberlain Board of Education voted 6-1 Monday evening against allowing the three-minute song, citing language differences and length of the graduation ceremony. The board also was concerned that including the song could give the appearance of favoring one culture over another.

But Sazue is refusing to see the decision as final.

Sazue wants Johnson to make a formal request to have a member of the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights, moderate a meeting between tribal and school leaders on the issue of Indian and non-Indian relations. Sazue is threatening to pull millions of dollars of tribal funds, including housing and casino accounts, from Chamberlain banks unless Wells Fargo issues a statement supporting the students who circulated the petition.

Wells Fargo denied the tribe's request for a public statement, but Sazue said that funds housed in Wells Fargo banks will be withdrawn, and possibly other banks as well.

"Wells Fargo is not going to take a side in this issue," Wells Fargo spokesperson Staci Schiller said.

Johnson told The Daily Republic Thursday that in her three years as superintendent, she has not overridden a school board decision.

"The board made that decision Monday night, and there has been no change," said Johnson, who would not comment further on the board's decision regarding the song.

The Daily Republic attempted to contact board President Rebecca Reimer Thursday. The newspaper was told she was out of town during the afternoon.

Bret Healy, a consultant for the tribe, said Thursday that Sazue and tribal leaders simply want Johnson to "show leadership and ignore the bad move by the school board."

He and Sazue also say the eagle staff -- given to the school more than seven years ago -- should be returned. The staff was presented as a symbol of good relations and faith, Healy said.

Johnson said that the eagle staff will not be returned.

"The eagle staff was made to honor the students, and by giving it away, we would be abandoning our commitment to our students," Johnson said.

Sazue, along with members of the tribal council, will meet with spiritual leaders to find ways to get the staff back.

"They slapped us in the face," Sazue said. "Why should they deserve to hold onto it anymore?"

Healy also wants Johnson to eliminate what Sazue considers a gag order on Chamberlain School District faculty. Johnson said that faculty can communicate with the media, but that the faculty member must make it known that they are speaking as an individual, and not as an employee -- or on behalf of -- the school district.

Meanwhile, a feathering ceremony is planned for today at St. Joseph's Indian School. The ceremony is new this year, but Sazue said the event does not replace an honor song.

"It's only for Native Americans, it's not for everybody," Sazue said.

Feathers will be tied into the hair of seniors and eighth-graders. There will not be any type of song or dance involved in the ceremony.

During Monday's meeting of the school board, Reimer said that most schools with a high population of American Indian students either have an honor song or a feathering ceremony, but not both.

Thursday, Sazue said the honor song is in Lakota, but that it honors more than just Indian students.

"It's honoring all those who have accomplished something good, whether it is in Lakota, or English, or not," Sazue said. "We could say the same thing about the Pledge of Allegiance, or 'The Star Spangled Banner.' We could say we don't want it here because it isn't in Lakota."

Healy said that he has nothing but admiration for the students who put forth the petition.

"This could have been a great story in American race relations and democracy," Healy said. "The kids have got this figured out. It's time for the adults to get with the program."

Sazue said area students plan to sing the honor song outside of the graduation ceremony, at 2 p.m. Sunday.

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