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King Center supports honor song

CHAMBERLAIN -- A national organization is supporting a group's effort to include an American Indian honor song at Chamberlain's high school graduations.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change -- aka The King Center -- recently sent a letter to the Chamberlain School Board in support of an honor song.

"This is so much bigger than the honor song at this point," said James Cadwell, a supporter of the honor song and a Chamberlain alumnus.

He said the honor song is an important facet of creating better race relations between Indians and non-Indians.

"The honor song is important, but it's obvious at this point there are much bigger issues in the community in regards to racism, with regards to understanding and respecting other communities," Cadwell said.

He said the request for an honor song has been ongoing for five years. In May, the school board denied a request by students, parents and community members to include an honor song at graduation. Students started a petition prior to the May meeting and gathered more than 200 signatures in support of the song. The board denied the request.

The request was again brought before the board in December and was again denied.

Cadwell, and his friend Lynn Hart -- both Indians -- have worked over the last two months to gather information for The King Center to write the letter. Hart, who lives in Flandreau, had a personal relationship with the Kings, Cadwell said, and got Cadwell in contact with the center.

Cadwell said The King Center asked for background on the honor song issue, and statistical and historical information.

"Dr. King's 'I Have A Dream' speech really talks about transformation," Cadwell said. "It talks about bringing people together rather than separating people."

The letter -- which is signed by Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. -- said honor songs have broad benefits.

"These songs convey positive messages of value to students of all cultures," King wrote. "When they are sung in the Native language, they affirm shared pride in the wonderful Native American heritage of South Dakota and other states in the region."

She added that non-Indian students would benefit by being able to show their respect and goodwill toward the Indian culture and people. She pointed out Indian students have often participated in singing songs from different cultures, promoting appreciation for those cultures and the diversity they provide.

Chamberlain's school district has a 38 percent Indian population, with 33 percent of the 2012-13 senior class being Indian and some elementary classrooms having more than 50 percent Indian students.

Cadwell said he has requested to be on the next school board agenda to discuss the letter and continued growing support for the honor song.

"There's kind of a groundswell going on now in regards to this," he said. "A lot of people in Chamberlain, native and nonnative, are very supportive."

Chamberlain Superintendent Debra Johnson said Monday the district has not received a letter from The King Center, so she did not wish to comment on the issue. Cadwell gave The Daily Republic a copy of the letter dated March 26 and addressed to the Chamberlain School Board.

Chamberlain School Board Chairwoman Rebecca Reimer was out of state and unavailable for comment.