SIOUX FALLS, SD - Charges of racism are flying fast and furiously against the Chamberlain School Board. The board last week voted against an American Indian honoring song during its recent graduation ceremony. Thirty five percent of the student population in Chamberlain public schools is American Indian.
The chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe immediately called for a boycott of Chamberlain businesses and the return of an eagle feather staff once given to the Chamberlain School District.
Cries of racism quickly followed. The racial flames were fanned in a weekend column by Patrick Lalley, the Managing Editor of the Newspaper Whose Name We Do Not Speak.
There's no question racism is alive and well in South Dakota. Chamberlain has been at the center of more than one controversy involving bigotry toward American Indians, so tensions there are especially high.
To be fair, the Chamberlain School District has been taking steps to be more inclusive of American Indians. The district co-sponsors a feathering ceremony for American Indian students and allows them to wear feathers with the tassel in their caps. American Indian students are also presented with star quilts, which were prohibited in the past.
Change in Chamberlain has come slowly, but there has been change.
I believe there are compelling arguments in favor of an honoring song at graduation. Personally, I find Native American music to be quite beautiful. Its inclusion would have benefited all students, staff and families. An honoring song would have gone a long way toward healing racial wounds, especially in a city like Chamberlain.
In my view, it was a mistake to turn down the request. But that's all it was...a mistake. There's no compelling evidence that board members are guilty of racism. We disagree with each other all the time without being motivated by racism.
Leave it to Patrick Lalley and the Thought Police to start branding people with hateful terminology before the dust settles. Charges of racism bring meaningful conversation and dialogue to a grinding and absolute halt.
Good luck trying to have an intelligent conversation next year in Chamberlain about an honoring song. Or the following year. These unfounded charges of racism will cause people to dig in and oppose any change simply out of spite. It may be years now before Chamberlain will allow an honoring song at graduation.
American Indians missed a golden opportunity to reach out and educate. They should have looked for opportunities to engage the public in a positive way that would result in change next year. They could have taught us all how to behave with dignity when encountering a disappointing setback.
Instead, the chair of the Crow Creek Tribe responded with threats and proposed boycotts. Calling for the return of an eagle feather staff was the biggest blunder of the entire affair, as it plays right into the very worst stereotypes of American Indians.
An unfortunate situation has now turned worse. And many are looking for someone to blame.
Let's do ourselves a big favor. Let's stop the blaming. Let's concentrate on healing and creating awareness. Let's foster understanding instead of engaging in name calling. Let's look for ways to celebrate our differences, as well as our similarities. Let's reach our hands out to our brothers in forgiveness.
If we would all do that, situations like this one would become few and far between.
Greg Belfrage is heard mornings from 6am-9am on KELO Newstalk 1320 AM / 107.9 FM.