Chamberlain, SX: A Border Town and Its “Indian Problem”

Standing in a parking lot across the street from the 2014 Chamberlain High School commencement ceremony last Sunday, singers, supporters (Native and non-Native), students, and families crowded outside the National Guard Armory to honor graduating seniors with a simple song—a song that has caused its fair share of controversy. The song itself is beautiful, as most Lakota honor songs (olowan) are. But it has attracted some of the ugliest sentiment from its biggest, vitriolic detractors—the Chamberlain school board. Many have struggled long and hard for the honor song only to be denied by the school board.

For years the script went something like this: Native and non-Native students suggest an honor song be sung at commencement to reflect the school’s ever-growing Native student body. The school board listens politely, sometimes, and most recently, impolitely. They deny the request. Parents and community members challenge them. White detractors fumble their words and reveal their ignorance, if not overt racism, trying to maintain the last vestiges of a vanishing way of life. The school board digs in and cites every excuse not to have it a part of commencement. Then it is revealed that there are deep-seated, unresolved historic and ongoing issues between a decreasing white majority and an increasing Native minority. Then, the honor song is sung outside commencement, usually from the curb across the street from the Armory.

But it’s more than just an honor song. And Chamberlain, despite its best attempts, will never live this down. It will haunt this border town in the annals of history. It will, as they say, go down in history.

There is something symbolic in the fact that it is sung from the curb, beyond the boundaries of what is considered “appropriate” celebration of educational achievements. Border towns are often divided that way, both metaphorically and geographically.

The “border” in border town functions to exclude those deemed unworthy and to include and protect those who are deemed worthy. The “border” in border town is also everywhere at once. You meet that border in everyday life when you are targeted as not belonging, when your presence is suspect and undesired. It separates the haves and have nots. It deems what is worthy knowledge and what is not; what is appropriate cultural expression and what is not; who is suspect and who is not; what is “political” and what is apolitical (as if there is a difference); and, more importantly, it divides a community along race, class, and gender boundaries. Once you transgress, you will know.

The institutions in place (education, police, business, religious, etc.) will let you know. And these boundaries are so matter-of-fact, so common sense, they become naturalized.

But the honor song supporters have respected these boundaries, these borders, much to the chagrin of their detractors. They have showed up at school board meetings to protest; followed civil protocol; and even sang the honor song across the street from the commencement ceremony out of respect for the school board’s ban. National civil rights organizations and regional newspapers even sympathize with the supporters. The South Dakota Indian Education Summit joined to the public shaming when it moved its annual conference from Chamberlain/Oacoma to Pierre.

Yet everyone still respects the boundaries and the border town still maintains its borders. The school board has even gone as far as to silence further discussion on the honor song, disallowing further public commentary. Certain individuals are singled out as trouble-makers, patsies for the problems these institutions created and the community’s silence sustains.

But the honor song controversy reveals more. The honor song problem reveals more. Substitute the word honor song with “Indian,” since it is after all a Native cultural expression. The “Indian” controversy reveals more. The “Indian” problem reveals more. “How does it feel to be a problem?” W. E. B. Dubois famously asked in 1903 on the question of race.

Exactly, how does it feel?

Growing up in Chamberlain, I asked myself that question a lot. When you transgress these boundaries, these borders, you feel it. You disrupt and upset the boundaries. You upset people’s emotions and expectations. You feel out of place. You are out of place. You are reminded, if not shown, you are out of place. You are made to feel a stranger.

Are we strangers in our own town, in our homelands?

Native presence in a border town like Chamberlain upsets the status quo. You can feel it. It fosters anxiety, distrust, and conjecture. The “Indian” problem is something Natives, non-Natives, and whites all feel.

The reaction from the school board, however, also reveals certain feelings. The sanctimony of the time-honored tradition of graduating from high school must maintain these boundaries. Tradition is historic practice after all. Transgressors who want to test this are treated like trespassers on private property.

Private property draws its own boundaries meant to include and exclude. Those who own have the right to be protected. Those who don’t own have no right. The more you own, the more rights you have.

Couple this thinking with overtly white institutions and you arrive at what legal scholar Cheryl Harris describes as “whiteness as property.” Whiteness becomes a form of property that must be defended and valorized. It seeks inclusion as well exclusion. It demarcates social boundaries. Those who trespass must be punished as if they violated property rights. Border towns such as Chamberlain are the epitome of such thinking.

So, where do we go from here? Do we cross the proverbial street and bring our song to the very institution that seeks its banishment? What if we brought the institution to the proverbial curb to reflect on the state Native people find themselves in border towns? What then?

If the population shift continues, soon Native people will find themselves in the majority. And what will they inherit? The ruins of institutions that saw them as unworthy trespassers?

I think we can do better. We know an honor song will not change the way the institutions of Chamberlain behave and act. It will not make them more moral or just. It will not make them more inclusive. It will not hold people accountable. It is merely a song and incapable of these things.

Perhaps we need to begin thinking of divesting power away from these institutions, these individuals, that continually divest us from power.

We have to think beyond seeking recognition and pats on the shoulder from institutions that are unwilling to change. This is after all more that just an honor song. It is about our future generations. It is not about just belonging to a system that sees you as unworthy.

These questions deserve answers. They are not exceptional to our current “Indian” problem—which is an age-old question. They are as old as the very day settlers came to what is now Chamberlain to dispossesses Native people of their land and livelihood. Put that way, the struggle over border towns such as Chamberlain is a struggle for life.

Shall we continue to sing from the curb?

Or shall we refuse the conditions set before us and strike anew?

11 thoughts on “Chamberlain, SX: A Border Town and Its “Indian Problem””

  1. That was so beautiful…I applaud those of you of our sister tribe of Oyate Sica..what you did was so moving and heart touching…to those of us who understand and beleive the Lakota/Dakota way…we know the importance of Honoring our Wakanyeja…that’s a concept that will always be a mystery and foriegn to the non native…All we can do is pray that their ignorance stays at that tiny level and doesn’t explode into something bigger….I’d like to see our Native children pulled from that school…I do beleive those enrolled children bring in dollars to that school…that needs to be looked into….In the meantime..thank you singers for a job well done!!! when I learned that our Flag song and Honor songs were not being allowed in that school….I purposely SAT during their National Anthem when our basketball team went to their school…AND…I Le ..Le…Le…Le..d at every oppertunity…grandson introduction..3 point shots..heck yeah this proud Lakota grama made some noise!!!

    1. Yes, that school does get paid to “educate” our children and yes, we need to make some noise and good job for sitting and for lelelele-ing!

  2. Chamberlain, S.D. is just one of many rural towns across America that still practices and embraces racism and bigotry in it’s most extreme form. These “White Privilege” cities exist and are allowed to spew their venom of racism and bigotry, because they are not challenged. Some Native people have become so tainted with the system or assimilated, that they accept this treatment, as normal, subjecting their children to extreme prejudices and racism. That is totally unacceptable, because there are State and Federal laws that are applicable. For starters, most school districts receive Federal monies to augment what their local or State budgets do not. Federal anti-discrimination laws are very strict and enforceable. Another way to respond is at the ballot box. Native people have the power of their vote. They need to leverage that power when elections come around, and position their own, on the school boards and school districts. There is an answer to racism and bigotry, you just have to be willing to stand up and combat it with the laws that are already available. There is just not one way to deal with the adversity of racism, there are many, but what I have outlined are the proven and long term methods that have been the most successful. People are not born being racists, it is a conscious act, and inherent in nature. It is taught from one generation to another. Until you have experienced the pain and degradation of racism, you will never comprehend what it means. Take action today, do not let it continue to affect your children, stand up and do something.

  3. Situations like this create, perpetuate, and deepen a racism against whites that is destroying our country. Sing the song from the curb, sing the song on the bus, sing the song on facebook, sing the song until we are all singing it together!

    1. Becki, I think “racism against whites…is destroying our country” is a really problematic statement. People have used a similar logic to defend and uphold white supremacy throughout history. Why, in this case, is this different? I don’t know how you twisted my article about a very open act of overt institutional racism (the banning of the honor song) into an example of how there is “racism against whites.” I’m a little lost. I think you missed the point of my piece.

      1. I think what Becky was saying is that when the example these people on the school board are making is viewed by natives as the way all white people feel, it creates hatred of all whites.

        As a white person connected to many native issues through friends, family, and my children’s schools, I see the reverse side if racism. I dont feel this is the major issue at all, but it exists, and is mostly perpetuated by a few ignorant outspoken people at every level.

        I think she is saying dont hate us all because of the ignorant few. Lets all show them a unified front of natives and whites who want to preserve the history and heritage of the native way of life.

        Although the destroying our country line is going a bit far…

      2. Eric,

        I think we have to be careful about care-taking whiteness, when we’re dealing with issues of institutional racism. It should go without saying that many non-Natives support the honor song and challenging institutional barriers. (You can plainly see it in the video). I didn’t have the space to include them because this issue is so widely published on.

        My comment was in response to how the honor song is not about care-taking white insecurities about these changes or reforms. There is a constant back and forth about this. I shouldn’t have to be the one (or any Native person for that matter) to address individual insecurities about whiteness and conflations about it “destroying our country.” That’s not what this is piece is about. We lose a lot of ground when we pander to what is “appropriate” and “acceptable” practice from institutions that pass rules and policy that are specifically anti-Indian. If you don’t like it, change it. Obviously, something as simple as an honor song was deemed “inappropriate.”

        Don’t look to Native people to hold your hand and make you feel welcome. We’re all in this together and we’re all accountable. How we deal with that is personal, and you should be cautious of anyone who prescribes solutions. Do that soul searching on your own time, and don’t expect people engaged in struggle to drop what their doing to make sure oppressors have redeemable qualities. This, in my opinion, is one-sided. How can it be anything other than an “Indian” problem?

        The “bad apple” syndrome of a few bad white people should not pass the buck on the issue of accountability. There is a unified front. But there are also a lot of barriers Native people still face. You can’t place the blame solely on a few individuals, because they represent an entire institution. Therefore, its institutional failure, not moral/personal failure. The whole institution is accountable. We can’t just level our criticisms at a few exceptionally racist individuals when they represent an entire institution. That’s what I was trying to say.

        Also, it’s not about preserving heritage. That’s for museums. We live it everyday. We are Native Nations with our own laws and ways of life. We need to change the way we think about these things, beyond preservation, since they are lived realities continually changing and adapting.

        By the way, there is no such thing as “reverse racism.” It’s just a clever attempt to place blame back on the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

        I hope this speaks to some of the questions you raise.


  4. Actually my statement was an indictment against the foolishness of the white school board (among other institutions) for creating anger and eventual hatred towards whites through their ridiculous and petty actions. Hatred is divisive. Racism is divisive. Ignorance is divisive. As an older white mother of diverse race children I see firsthand the struggle that is presented to them in our society. My heart is broken firsthand at the injustices that I see. It would be easy for them to become bitter and dislike whites except for the fact that the mother whom they love is white. I certainly was NOT trying to place blame back on the dispossessed! I have a number of friends whose family members go back and forth to the “rez” and am filled with nothing but compassion as I watch the struggle of our young NA children. That is all-

    1. I understand what you are saying, Becki, but you seem to be missing the larger picture. Native people as a rule have never held a majority in state government or city government. To say that this issue could potentially result in anti-white racism minimizes the issues at hand. Anti-Indian racism is institutionalized in Chamberlain and SX, as ongoing and historical fact. That’s the point of this essay and this blog. Please read my other posts that deal with this.

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