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Back when we were first exploring the state as our next possible home, an East Coast Native American friend said to me: “South Dakota and racism…they go together like Mississippi and plantations”.
Too true, I thought - though I wasn’t aware at that time how many Native Americans across the country referred to South Dakota as “the Mississippi of the North”.
And though I was aware of the state’s history of racism and racist incidents – from the 19th century Wounded Knee Massacre to the “No Indians Allowed” signs that remained into the latter 20th, you never really know someplace until you move there.
From the time we arrived and I began work at The New Lakota Times in August of 1999, I covered a hate crime in Mobridge, the unsolved deaths of Lakota men near Whiteclay, the unsolved deaths of Native American men along Rapid Creek and the gathering of the Civil Rights Commission in Rapid City.
Four major stories about racism in as many months.
Over the next two decades I covered dozens of similar stories - 85 in the first 4 years alone, that either involved South Dakotans or took place here. Among them was: “Allegations of Racism and a Controversial Death at Faith School”, in the April 5, 2004 issue of News From Indian Country.
The story focused on complaints from Native American parents whose children were in the extreme minority of students in the Faith School District.
Referred to as “The Prairie Oasis” by White residents of the small town that borders the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Native American students apparently rarely found succor in their educational environment.
After having to replace her son’s front teeth when a White student smashed the child’s face into a sidewalk at the school, one Lakota mother began to lose track of her visits to the local emergency room to deal with the “accidental” injuries her son sustained.
Nor was she alone. The incidents of racism, abuse and discrimination against a Native American disabled student had to be reported to members of the state legislature and the Department of Education’s office of Civil Rights, as well as the national organization Students and Teachers Against Racism.
Despite the severity of these and other reported incidents of racism in the Faith School District, their impact almost pales against the intensity of the morning when the body of 17-year old former student Kristopher Long Elk was found hanging by the neck from a swing set.
School administrators not only left the body visible for the extended period it took local law enforcement to arrive, but also refused to cancel classes that day - thereby allowing students to view the disturbing scene. Neither were parents contacted to advise them of what had occurred, nor professional counseling services made available to the students.
Faith School District superintendent Terry Mayer refused to comment on the death - later ruled a suicide, or any of the complaints of racism, as did the school’s attorney.
Lakota elder David Bald Eagle, now deceased, observed at the time that the White residents of Faith “like to talk to you and smile at you if they know you’re going to spend money, otherwise they don’t want anything to do with you.” He added that the attitude of the town had changed over the previous 15 years, noting that new people had moved to Faith, “and they brought their prejudices with them.”
Whether Bald Eagle’s personal take on the situation then was the explanation for the racism experienced by Native Americans at that time or not racism, apparently, is still a part of the Faith community 17 years later. Blame the Faith High School Rodeo Club for planning to host a “Slave/Branding Auction”, the school district, the community itself or all of the above.
Current Superintendent Kelly Daughters’ choice to absolve the Faith School District from the social media storm of criticism that erupted over the planned “slave/branding auction” by saying “the school had nothing to do with it” shows, at the very least, a lack of understanding over the role the school and the superintendent’s office play within their community.
Here’s the way this works: anything that happens in the school, on the school grounds or involving groups that use the school name - especially events advertised to the general public - are the responsibility of the school. It’s that simple.
Meanwhile, an educational institution - of all places - should be aware of national events and changing times while instructing students on the significance of current events: local, regional, national and global.
Considering the present situation within our country, teaching young minds – particularly those in isolated areas such as Faith, the reality that racism - whether aimed at Native Americans, Black people, or whomever – is still racism is paramount to turning out well-rounded students.
That the nearby Pierre/Fort Pierre High School Rodeo Club already has a history of being asked by a Black resident to change the name of a similar event because it was offensive, and denying the request, should be on the radar of any area schools.
Moreover, just because “slave auctions - where rodeo club members are auctioned off for chores to the highest bidder – are a tradition in the area doesn’t mean they should continue, especially as we become educated to the ignorance of our past and the adjusted needs of our present.
Think the South’s “peculiar” tradition of slavery - as practitioners referred to it at the time.
As South Dakota “celebrates” its statehood today, let us all mark the date by acknowledging the many, varied and - sadly - continuing incidents of racism that are a part of its history, while striving to confront and refute any future incidents and issues that would further engrain our image as “the Mississippi of the North” in anyone’s mind.
Seriously, we can do better than this.