School district to continue conversation on tribal culture

BSD image: Tasiyagnunpa Barondeau, left, and Barbara Miller speak at Monday’s Brookings School Board meeting regarding an incident at Brookings High School commencement May 26.

BROOKINGS – At Monday’s Brookings School Board meeting, Tasiyagnunpa Barondeau expressed her concern for racial equality and desire for proper education about and representation for Native Americans and other cultural and ethnic groups.

Barondeau is the mother of Miles Livermont, the student who was told to remove his eagle feather at Brookings High School graduation May 26.

Livermont was told to hand over his feather or not participate in the commencement ceremony last month, even though state law ensures an eagle feather or plume may be worn by tribal youth.

After it was handed off several times, the feather was returned to Barondeau, and she was able to affix it back on her son’s mortar board prior to him receiving his diploma on stage.

Brookings School District Superintendent Klint Willert later issued a public apology regarding the incident.

Barondeau was accompanied this week by several members of her family as well as assistant professors of the American Indian Studies (AIS) program at South Dakota State University, Mark Freeland and Sharity Bassett.

At the school board meeting, Barondeau referenced South Dakota Codified Law 13-1-66, which states that no one shall “prohibit any person from wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at a school honoring or graduation ceremony,” specifically pertaining to an eagle feather. 

There is also a 1994 federal memorandum signed by then-president Bill Clinton titled “Policy Concerning Distribution of Eagle Feathers for Native American Religious Purposes.” The memorandum promotes and encourages the application of eagle feathers for religious purposes to “the greatest extent possible.”

“We started the petition (referring to the more than 7,000 signatures collected online asking the school board to publicly apologize) because … I was not sure after state law being broken that we would have any chance to visit with this as a part of a larger conversation,” Barondeau said.

Livermont’s family did not wish to pursue any ousting of the faculty member who required the feather’s removal because they believed that in doing so, no progressive and representative changes would be made to the school system.

Many people assume that despite knowing of Native American culture and people, some of these racially charged issues don’t matter because they incorrectly assume there “are so few of us,” Barondeau said.

“I do think we need to have a voice and a resource for the school board and for our administrators for these issues. So that when something might come up, there’s somebody there,” Barondeau said referring to what action she would like to see the school board take.

“I want to thank you for the apology that was given to the Class of 2019. … I just want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, and not just the bare minimum but really be proactive in making sure our American Indian students and our teachers and faculty are well supported,” Barondeau said.

Also at the meeting was Barbara Miller, Livermont’s grandmother. 

“I was so sad that he was cheated of the joy that he should have had,” she said of the incident at graduation.

Miller also expressed her dissatisfaction and disappointment that people do not realize there is still racism in South Dakota.

“I hope that Brookings can show a whole new way for these kids, because it’s not easy living in two worlds,” Miller said.

Assistant Professor and Coordinator of AIS at SDSU Mark Freeland explained the trials and tribulations the Native American people have and still endure on a daily basis. 

“It’s risky to be indigenous. It’s risky to be visible. … This is a common occurrence, and it only gets better when we have systemic change around it,” Freeland said.

Alongside Freeland was AIS Assistant Professor Sharity Bassett. She spoke about how important it is that educators in South Dakota and all across the country educate themselves about Native American history as well as where and who they are as a people today. 

According to surveys done by Bassett in her classrooms and lectures, less than 5 percent of her students have ever learned about Native American cultures “in the present tense.” 

President of the School Board Mellissa Heermann extended an apology upon the behalf of the entire Brookings School District. 

“I can’t imagine that moment at graduation, and I apologize as well for the situation your family was put in. … Sincerely, we want to do better,” Heermann said.

Heermann also conveyed the desires of the school board to work with Barondeau on creating proactive measures.

No motions were made on Monday’s meeting because of issues with the school board’s ex officio policy.

“We want to make sure (changes) are intentional and right and lasting, not just a fix for today but a fix that will last for a while,” Heermann said.

Contact Matthew Rhodes at [email protected]


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