What hasn’t been talked about seems far more telling than what has in the continuing controversy regarding whether to allow a traditional Lakota honor song as part of the annual graduation ceremony at Chamberlain High School. American Indian students comprise 38 percent of the school’s student body.
In 2012, an Indian parent requested such a song, but there was apparently little time to act on it before graduation.
After students this May petitioned the board anew on the question, trustees rejected the proposed three-minute song, 6-1. Board president Rebecca Reimer argued that most schools with large Indian populations allow either a “feathering” ceremony (where graduates wear ceremonial feathers) or an honor song, but not both, and that the district has done and continues to do more for Indian students than any other minority group over the years; and board member Casey Hutmacher said he did not see how a song not in English “honors everybody.”
Then, in November, the board revisited the issue and again rejected it, this time 4-2, citing language differences and length of the existing graduation program, as well as concerns that authorizing the song would give the appearance of favoring one culture over another.
None of these arguments seems particularly germane or compelling.
“Because we have never done it” is a cliché non-argument. The feathering ceremony, new this year, was held for Indian students earlier and separate from Chamberlain High’s baccalaureate, so it should not be linked to this discussion. Worry that an added three-minute song would cause the graduation time schedule to become unwieldy seems thin. And, finally, to imply that the Lakota language is somehow a foreign tongue that has no place in a Western American school, even in a wholly positive application, is, at best, petty. Lakota was spoken here before whites arrived; it is an inescapable, and valuable, part of the American historical experience. Surely, we can find it in our hearts to be enriched and not threatened by a Lakota honor song.
Possibly the most pertinent statement in this entire controversy was from board president Reimer, who said the issue is not about students, academics or even the song. “It’s about control and power. It’s about control and power,” she said, twice. “I’m extremely disappointed in a handful of people.”
What that means, we don’t know, but it seems to imply less a policy conundrum than some darker undercurrent. If so, then the board should openly deal with that issue and not tie it to the honor-song request, which, frankly, seems entirely reasonable to us.