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 troublemakers, 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 than 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?
Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa) is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He studies the history and politics of the Oceti Sakowin, border towns, and Indigenous human rights.