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Indian students lose fight for honor song

The Chamberlain school board discusses Monday evening at the Chamberlain High School library whether to include an American Indian honor song during the graduation ceremony Sunday. The board voted 6-1 against the request to include the song. (Anna Jauhola/Daily Republic)

CHAMBERLAIN -- American Indian students will not be recognized with an honor song during this year's Chamberlain High School graduation ceremony.

The Chamberlain Board of Education voted 6-1 Monday evening at the Chamberlain High School library against a request to allow the song this year.

About 40 people attended the meeting, most of whom raised their hands in favor of starting the tradition of incorporating an honor song into the high school graduation ceremony Sunday.

Board President Rebecca Reimer said a feathering ceremony already was added for a ceremony prior to graduation, and an honor song doesn't seem necessary.

"Most schools with our demographics have either a feathering ceremony or an honor song," Reimer said. "Not both."

She said the seniors and eighth-graders will go through a feathering ceremony at St. Joseph's Indian School the Friday prior to the high school graduation ceremony. Students who live at St. Joseph's attend school there until high school, when they go to Chamberlain High. The feathering ceremony is the first of its kind for Chamberlain.

According to the South Dakota Department of Education, 35 percent of Chamberlain School District students are American Indian, or nearly 300 of the school's approximately 900 students during the 2012-13 academic year.

Students presented a petition to the school board in April to allow an American Indian honor song at the graduation ceremony.

Board members have declined the same request in the past, stating they feel graduation should remain the same as it has for years.

Chris Rodriguez, a senior at Chamberlain High School, was one of the students who started circulating the petition. He said he was upset the school board voted against incorporating the honor song, but respected the decision.

"I will come back to the school board because my sister is coming to school here, too," he said after the meeting. "I wasn't just fighting for this year's seniors. I was fighting for generations after that."

School board members said they want to make sure graduation is about recognizing educational achievements rather than favoring one culture over another.

Others said the ceremony could become too lengthy or require other cultures to be integrated as well.

"I'd just like to thank the people who got involved with this (petition)," said Casey Hutmacher, board member. "And for you guys to stand up and talk in front of us, I appreciate it. ... But I will not be voting in favor tonight."

Hutmacher said several senior class students he spoke to didn't seem ready to include an Indian honor song at graduation.

"I can't see how it honors everybody when it's not in our language, and when I say our language, I mean English," he said. "I look at the Pledge of Allegiance and it covers everything."

The one board member in favor of granting the request to include an honor song said it is the board's duty to vote for change.

"We vote for change all the time," said Steve Fox, board member. "And that's supposed to be our goal to change in good ways."

He said other cultural activities have taken place at graduation in the past, including his son receiving a star quilt from the Sazue family.

"I could think of so many reasons to do this for our kids," he said. "Why not give three or five minutes to teach our kids to honor another culture?"