End the KI YI ceremony and tradition at Watertown High School in SD

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Every year Watertown High School in South Dakota celebrates homecoming with a theme that they call “ki-yi”. Part of this tradition includes a ceremony in which students participate in a skit to tell the “ki-yi legend”. The legend describes the story of two made up tribes coming together as one. The students involved in the ceremony wear clothing meant to resemble traditional Native American clothing, and the homecoming royalty are crowned the “Chieftain” and “Princess” of the new tribe. Many claim that this legend honors Native American people. There is a distinct difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating a culture, however, and this bastardized version of a very real and prevalent culture is unacceptable.

The fact that this tradition is still widely supported by Watertown High school is somewhat surprising. In 2002 the school board opted to remove war bonnets and feathers from all parts of the ceremony. Why then does the ki-yi tradition remain at all? Does it no longer perpetuate the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in the same way that a mascot does simply because some feathers were removed? Upon examining the history of this issue in Watertown it is easy to see where resistance stems from—tradition. No one wants to let go of the ki-yi tradition simply because it has been going on for so many years.

In 2001 a task force of five alumni and two students met to examine the tradition, and they decided that it was not offensive. The taskforce, however, contained no Native Americans. What does that teach our children about who has the right to be offended in order for change to occur?

The United States government tried to systematically erase Native American people and all semblance of their culture. My people fought hard to preserve our ways, and it is a slap in the face each time we are told we have no right to be offended over someone’s interpretation of what our culture is.

When I see people in regalia I am filled with a sense of pride. My culture and my people are not supposed to be here today, but we are. It is an indescribable and powerful feeling, but when I see people taking ownership of my culture and interpreting it as they see fit—I feel sick. It looks foolish, and it feels like my culture is being mocked. Why is it that you can say that it is okay, but I cannot feel offended? What kind of message does that send to students and to the public when a school supports this type of behavior and this way of thinking?

In 2001 Watertown Superintendent Rick Melmer stated, “"We want to be sensitive to their needs, but at the same time recognize that there are a lot of people that have identified with the legend, the KI YI legend, it's been going on for a long time and it's really part of our homecoming culture as well.” Oh, okay, so it is a part of your culture, and you do not want other people to change it. This quote may be from 2001, but the sentiment is still prevalent within the community.

This is my plea to Watertown High School. Please, stop “having fun” at others expense. There are so many other homecoming themes that you could choose, and in doing so you would be making a positive change in the world. My people fought very hard to preserve our culture, and I think we should have a say in how it is presented in schools. Removal of the ki-yi tradition is long overdue as illustrated by the ignorance displayed in comments from both students and staff regarding the issue. How can you still say that it is not harmful? This is a teachable moment, and those in charge at Watertown High School have to decide what it is that they want to teach students about respecting other people and their cultures.

Video of the "ki yi legend":

Around 9:27 the following video gives a little history of the area. Discussion around ki-yi begins at 12:00 until about 16:45. Katie Ernst, a 2002 Watertown graduate, shared her video with me to provide more information for those unfamiliar with the history and continued practice of this tradition.

*disclaimer: I want to make it clear that I do feel that the ki-yi tradition should stop, but this clip provides a really good history

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