Battle Hymn

Mitchell Olson is joined by the Vermillion High School Concert Choir in singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the 2019 Veterans Day Ceremony hosted at Vermillion High School by American Legion Post 1 of Vermillion and VHS. Olson asked the capacity crowd to join him and the concert choir and sing the refrain of this familiar song.

When a politician gives a speech, most of the time you don’t expect it to be steeped in reality.

Politicians really don’t live in the same world we do. Before they were elected to office, they may have been in “our” world – they likely worked in jobs similar to ours, daily using their skills to provide a valuable service to others in their community, to provide a stable home for their family and to generally make the world a better place.

We’d like our political leaders to do the same thing. And if we all sat down together, we likely could name several politicians who did just that by working hard and, with their unique sense of character, showing that they have the right leadership qualities to get things done.

And then there’s President Trump. I had hoped to be writing about anything but the president this week, but I just can’t help myself. Please bear with me.

We all know the president visited Mount Rushmore on July 3, in part to view a $350,000 fireworks show that we all paid for. He also, sadly, gave a speech that was just as weird, if not more weird, than his inaugural address nearly four years ago.

Among his baffling statements is this:

“Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”

President Trump believes our children -- the kids at Austin and Jolley elementary schools, at St. Agnes School, at the middle and high schools -- are being taught to hate the United States.

Let that sink in a minute.

Last year, Vermillion’s Veterans Day program was held in the high school gymnasium as it had been for five years before. The program’s home used to be the W.H. Over Museum, in cramped quarters.

Honoring veterans in the school gymnasium for six consecutive years now has made Veterans Day a unique time in our community. Last November, local veterans and others who filled the gym to near capacity heard special music provided by the St. Agnes and Jolley Elementary fifth graders and the VHS Choir, watched a video honoring veterans created by middle school students, and heard from student essay winners.

“This year we have a secret special presentation for [a Vermillion teacher] who is retiring from the National Guard after almost 43 years in December,” Lenni Billberg told the Plain Talk in our story published in our issue a week before the event so that everyone would be aware of it. “We will also have a special song with a group from Vermillion’s Concert Band, Concert Choir, and Mitchell Olson.”

Billberg teaches social studies at Vermillion High School. She helped move the recognition of veterans to the high school so that more local people could participate in the program planned by local veterans groups.

She continues to help coordinate the Veterans Day program at the high school.

“The Vermillion Veteran’s Ceremony is a wonderful celebration of our service people, but also a place wherein our entire school community comes together to celebrate, remember, and honor our veterans,” she said. “We have representation from all schools as well as work in conjunction with the American Legion Vermillion Wallace Post 1.”

I am 100 percent certain that Billberg is not teaching her students to hate the United States. Nor are any of our other educators.

Our governor, who spoke before introducing the president, had to get in on Trump’s act, too, trying to convince us that our nation’s history is somehow being erased.

“Over the past several weeks, we have been witnessing a very troubling situation unfold. In real time, we are watching an organized, coordinated campaign to remove and eliminate all references to our nation's founding, and many other points in our history,” she said.

The governor didn’t cite any specific examples of this. News stories have recently reported the removal of statues of a lot of individuals who likely never appear in our students history books because they turned out to be enemies of the United States or had little regard for the rights guaranteed to citizens of our country by the U.S. Constitution.

Kathy Sheehan, the mayor of Albany, New York, said June 11 that she signed an executive order to remove the statue of Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler from in front of city hall. Sheehan noted that Schuyler was reportedly the largest slave owner in Albany.

A 131-year-old Confederate statue was removed from an intersection in Alexandria, Virginia on June 2. The statue, named "Appomattox," depicted a southern-facing Civil War soldier.

In Birmingham, Alabama, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate officer Charles Linn on June 2.

Protesters took down three statues in Richmond, Virginia. On June 6, a statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham was toppled by protesters. On June 10, a statue depicting former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was torn down. That same day, a statue of Christopher Columbus was taken down and thrown into a nearby lake.

In Rocky Mount, North Carolina, however, the city council voted to remove a Confederate monument on June 8. The city plans to remove more Confederate monuments.

In Sacramento, California, state lawmakers announced on June 17 that statues of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella would be removed from the Capitol rotunda.

"Christopher Columbus is a deeply polarizing historical figure given the deadly impact his arrival in this hemisphere had on indigenous populations," Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Assembly Rules Chairman Ken Cooley said in a joint statement.

In Madison County, Alabama, the Madison County Commission approved the removal of a Confederate statue outside the courthouse in downtown Huntsville. The resolution stated that the statue will be relocated to “an appropriate location.”

It’s not just protesters that are becoming upset by the painful lessons some statues have taught for decades. Local governments have finally had enough, too, as it becomes more and more clear that these sculpted figures are teaching nothing of value.

Gov. Noem is apparently upset that they are being removed.

"Rather than looking to the past to help improve our future, some are trying to wipe away the lessons of history. Lessons that we should be teaching to our children, and to our grandchildren. This approach focuses exclusively on our forefathers' flaws. But it fails to capitalize on the opportunity to learn from their virtues," she said July 3 in her speech at Mount Rushmore.

She fails to recognize that the statues that are being removed were put in place all over the South to drive home a point: People of color are a subclass in the United States. Those who put the statues in place wanted to make sure that, day after day, nonwhites are reminded of that fact.

Noem also fails to recognize that those in power in the United States – primarily white people – will find other ways to keep that flawed lesson alive. A Confederate statue was removed? No problem. States with large minority populations can introduce voter ID requirements to limit the number of voters who are able to cast a ballot.

The ACLU notes that eight states passed voter ID laws in 2011: Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. Approximately 1 in 10 Americans do not have a government-issued photo ID. Approximately 1 in 4 African-Americans do not have a government-issued photo ID.

In South Carolina, for example, 81,938 minority voters lack government-issued ID; minority voters are 20 percent more likely to lack photo ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles than white voters.

In 2003, South Dakota created a non-strict, photo ID requirement before anyone can cast a vote on Election Day. I believe states began enacting such rules in an attempt to avoid the debacle of the 2000 presidential election.

Such rules, nationally, disenfranchise a number of voters. In South Dakota, they likely have that effect on our Native American population.

A study conducted by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition found that low levels of trust in government, lack of information on how and where to register and to vote, long travel distances to register or to vote, low levels of access to the internet, hostility toward Native Americans, and intimidation are obstacles.

Isolating conditions such as language barriers, socioeconomic disparities, lack of access to transportation, lack of residential addresses, lack of access to mail, and the digital divide limit Native American political participation.

Changes to voting processes further frustrate the ability of Native Americans to vote and voter ID laws place a disproportionate burden on otherwise eligible Native voters.

Now that the Mount Rushmore festivities are over, it’s time for the governor to get her mind off statues, many of which do much more harm than good. We’ve mentioned quite a few issues that need attention here in South Dakota’s Indian country.

Please meet with our Native American leaders, governor. You stated last week that it is important to improve America’s future. Make sure they are included.

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