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Sisseton eliminates all Native American references from homecoming ceremony

SISSETON, S.D. - The Sisseton School Board has voted to eliminate all references to Native American names and images from the high school's homecoming ceremony, Superintendent Neil Terhune said Wednesday, Sept. 14.

SISSETON, S.D. – The Sisseton School Board has voted to eliminate all references to Native American names and images from the high school’s homecoming ceremony, Superintendent Neil Terhune said Wednesday, Sept. 14.

The board voted 6-3 on Monday night to change the coronation ceremony “to refrain from utilizing Native American culture and religious ceremonies, such as vision quest, chief, braves, warpaint, buckskin-clad maiden,” Terhune said.

The decision came despite protests from perhaps 40 to 50 students and another 25 parents and staff members at the board meeting who supported keeping the homecoming ceremony unchanged this year, Terhune said.

He said he hasn’t heard anything from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe since the decision.

“I know that they were for it,” he said. “And I know the board wanted to move on and get past it. The only thing that held it up this year was the timing was bad,” because homecoming is this week.

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Terhune originally made a recommendation at the August board meeting, which was approved, to change homecoming for the 2017-18 school year and keep this year’s ceremony the same.

“Give the kids the chance to do something more enduring and of higher quality, and give them more opportunity to do a better job,” he said.

But some board members asked him if he could do something this year.

“By the time I got through talking to people, nobody could agree what those few changes might be,” Terhune said. So he decided it was perhaps best to make the complete change.

Debra Flute, an attorney and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal legal department who was elected to the school board a few months ago, “felt very strongly it should be changed this year,” Terhune said, so the issue was added to Monday’s agenda at the last minute.

Terhune said he made a 30-minute presentation, followed by board debate. Members of the student council presented a petition to leave homecoming the same this year before the board voted to go ahead with the immediate change.

About 56 to 58 percent of the student body in the Sisseton School District identifies as Native American, Terhune said. The percentage of Native American students at the high school is 35 to 40 percent, he estimated.

Terhune, who started in his position in July, said he hasn’t heard anything about changing the school’s logo, which is an American Indian in full feathered headdress, or the sports team nickname, Redmen.

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While there is “considerable debate” in the community over the symbol and nickname, he said it may be best to let the homecoming change “take effect and get a second wind.”

Some people are hailing the decision.

Phil St. John, 72, lives in Mandan, N.D., but grew up in Sisseton, where he said discrimination was not unusual against Native Americans in the 1940s and 50s.

St. John has spent decades working to end the misappropriation of Native American culture by schools, sports teams and businesses.

“The Redmen was always a target of mine. I didn’t like how we were depicted,” St. John said.

He said some aspects of Sisseton High School’s now-dropped homecoming ceremony were sacrilegious, other parts demeaning to Native Americans.

“It’s a very good step. Our ceremonies are special and unique,” St. John said. “Taking that ceremony away, to me, seems like a victory. I went through a lot of hell growing up there.”

St. John said the school board made the right decision.

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“Their hearts woke up and said it’s time to change. This is 2016,” St. John said.

“Stop freezing us in time. Feathers, teepees, those days are gone,” he said. “I think it’s a big change.”

Terhune said he suggested that the students consider doing a homecoming wearing formal wear, much as is done at other schools around the nation.

He said the students have their hearts set on doing something unique.

“They opted to go with something from gods and goddesses. Kind of Greek mythology, I think.

They are going to try and do that,” Terhune said.

“I was very, very proud of our school board for making this change,” Terhune said. “It’s a tough thing.”

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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