For the Daily Republic

CHAMBERLAIN -- A vote to include an American Indian honor song at Chamberlain High School’s graduation ceremony failed for the second time.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The school board voted 4-2 against the honor song Monday night at the high school, with one member abstaining.

Two first-year board members, Marcel Felicia and Foster Iversen, voted yes. Four voted no: board president Rebecca Reimer, Leanne Larson, Jay Blum and Dallas Thompson. Second-year board member Casey Hutmacher abstained and said it was due to a conflict of interest, but did not explain the conflict.

This is the second time the Chamberlain school board has considered a vote to include a traditional honor song at high school graduation. The board previously voted 6-1 in May against including an honor song.

An Indian honor song is a traditional drum song sung in a native language. In this case, the request was for a Lakota honor song. The song is offered to recognize the accomplishments of individuals or a group. In May 2012, the initial request went to the administration to include the song at graduation, in a district where more than one-third of the student population is Indian.

Blum said the feedback he’s heard from the community is against the honor song. Near the end of discussion Monday night, Reimer thanked those who shared feedback and recognized the animosity that has arisen.

“Here we are again voting on a topic which is meant to honor all and bring people together. Instead it’s dividing a community,” she said.

She read a list of actions the district has taken to recognize Indian students and their families. The list included assemblies, staff training, the school’s Native American Club and pow-wow, a feathering ceremony, a native parent advisory council, honoring Native American Day, summer school at Fort Thompson and allowing graduates to wear Eagle feathers and drape a star quilt on their chair at graduation.

“Our district has gone to great lengths to build relationships with the Native American population of Chamberlain School District,” she said. “In fact, we’ve done more for this particular group than any other group in the 11 years I’ve served on the board.”

Reimer said the honor song discussion was not about the students, academics or even the song itself.

“It’s about control and power. It’s about control and power,” she said. “I’m extremely disappointed in a handful of people.”

Reimer also tried to put an end to the controversy, which has drawn statewide media attention.

“This agenda item has been exhausted and after tonight it’s done,” she said.

Board member Felicia, the only Indian on the board, said he’s heard feedback in support of the honor song.

“It’s a no-brainer. The students, a majority of the students, would like this,” he said. “And if I’m here to support the students, then that is what it is.”

Students constituted about one-third of the 80 audience members in the room, but none spoke. Seven people from the community spoke to the board.

Mike Tyrell, executive director at St. Joseph’s Indian School, said the honor song has become an issue between the adults, not the students. St. Joseph’s is a Catholic residential school in Chamberlain whose high school students attend the public school.

“The adults are actually getting in the way of solving the issue,” he said. “What happens then is the students are the ones who get short-changed.”

He noted that no students were on the agenda to speak. CHS student Shawn Zephier sang a portion of an honor song before the board. Zephier also spoke at the Nov. 25 meeting.

Tyrell noted a Latin song performed at the 2013 graduation and said it had European roots.

“Why couldn’t we have put an honor song next to that?” he asked. “We chose to exclude that by vote of the board.”

Further, he felt if the community had dealt with the issue properly, it would not have become a divisive issue.

“We haven’t dealt with our business very well,” he said. “Therefore, it lingers and we have to deal with it.”

LaRayne Woster, a Rosebud Sioux Tribe member and parent in the district who also teaches Lakota studies at St. Joseph’s, said an honor song at graduation is the right thing to do for the community and families.

“It would be the beginning of reconciliation and healing for our community,” Woster said.