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Chamberlain families want American Indian honoring song at graduation

CHAMBERLAIN (AP) -- Some parents and students in the Chamberlain School District in southeastern South Dakota are resurrecting an effort to persuade the school board to allow an American Indian honoring song during graduation ceremonies.

Students have presented a petition to the board and board members have promised to vote on the matter before the May 19 graduation, but they have declined such requests in the past. School officials say a ceremony led by the district's Native American Club the night before graduation honors tribal students.

Superintendent Debra Johnson told the Argus Leader newspaper that an honoring song hasn't been allowed during graduation because the board "wanted to keep the graduation ceremony in the tradition that it has been."

At least one-third of the students in the district are American Indian. Supporters of an honoring song during graduation say it would be culturally appropriate and might help efforts to bridge cultural and racial differences in the community.

"Yes, I think racism is at play in this decision," said Jim Cadwell, a bilingual instructor for Crow Creek tribal schools and a parent of three children who went through the Chamberlain district. "That comes from the last 12 years of living here. There's a mentality here."

Johnson said the Chamberlain district does many things to embrace and reach out to its American Indian students and families, such as forming a American Indian advisory group and having staff members travel to reservations to meet with parents.

The district requires all students to exhibit an understanding of tribal culture in the state, she said, and the Native American Club hosts a powwow.

"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 said.