Racist State of Mind: South Dakota

I had read a comment the other day by someone who said “racism was not important” and pretty much acted like it was non-existent. Now, I am not saying this to be racist, but the person that commented was white. And truth be told, you don’t ever feel racism when you’re white unless you are out of your element. Like my reservation, I once had a white boss who was stopped by the tribal police and given a ticket for speeding. He was going 90 in a 55, granted it was the middle of nowhere, but they called it a felony because he was speeding with intent to do deadly harm, or something like that. He fought it in tribal court and still had to pay about a thousand dollar ticket. I did laugh, even when he bitched and moaned about it, but when he said it was reverse racism because he was white, I stopped laughing. I said “Welcome to my world. If I had done that off the rez, I would be in jail.”

I live in the most racist state there is to be an American Indian, hands down. I never realized how racist it was until I moved away and wasn’t followed when I shopped.

To live in South Dakota, especially west of the Missouri River, near the Black Hills, and be an Indian is definitely a struggle. And I use the term “struggle” loosely, because I feel my ancestors knew what a real struggle was. Especially after being put on reservations. The way of life before that may have “looked like a struggle” to the white people who “settled” here because it wasn’t their way of life. The real struggle happened when Indians were forced into a way of life that wasn’t theirs. Especially after they defeated the U.S. Army at the Battle of Greasy Grass or what the government calls “The Little Big Horn Massacre”. Defending your own people when being attacked is not a massacre, it’s an ass kicking. And even though the whole 7th cavalry was wiped out in 1876 and their flag was taken in battle, to this day they still exist. Fourteen years after that ass kicking they massacred over 300 Lakota women, children, and men at Wounded Knee. I believe what I was taught, it was revenge.

After that the government forced a way of life on our people, they wanted providers who hunted to turn into farmers. They were given land to farm on that wasn’t fit for farming. Children were forced to speak another language, forced to go to boarding school where religion was forced on them, they were abused physically, emotionally, sexually…and this was supposed to be civilized and a better way of life?

To think that I have ancestors who had made it through that trauma and continued to carry on our ways of life and virtues shows me the strength in my people. There are also many others who had never recovered from the damage that was done to them. Some of that damage and anger carries on in the younger generations via historical trauma. Some people don’t think that historical trauma exists and that it is an excuse, yet these are the same people that hang flags on 9/11 and mourn. They love to tell you exactly where they were when that plane hit the first tower. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with honoring those who passed away that day, but there is no “getting over” a great tragedy. Especially when the tragedy happened to those you share DNA with. After all 9/11 is not the first time there were terrorist attacks on this soil. They had been happening for over 500 years.

So when I talk about racism in South Dakota, it is in no way comparable to what our ancestors had been through. But in this year 2012, it is alive and well. I never look for racism on purpose. I try to think maybe a librarian was having a bad day. Or that bus driver woke up with heart burn. Then when it’s apparent that racism has indeed showed it’s ugly face, I will speak up and demand my children be treated the same as others. I want my kids to know this and remember this about me, because I want them to know that it is not ok to let people continue to think it is fine to treat people different because of the color of their skin. (That is so stupid, anyway.) I know I have embarrassed my sons and sometimes they don’t want to tell me when something happened where they experienced racism but eventually they do, so maybe they really do want me to defend them. I just hope they do the same for their children someday, because if they don’t their grandmother will.

The first time I experienced it I was in the 1st grade. Up until that point in my life–all was ok. The most traumatic thing in my life was the fact that my parents divorced. It bothered me to have to split my time between my dad and my mom. Especially since my mom moved off the reservation and to the city to go to college.

The moment was in 1st grade, I was too young to know it was racism, but I knew it wasn’t right. I had started school at a white school, fresh off the reservation. I was looking forward to making friends. As soon as I walked in the classroom, I wondered if I was going to make friends. I was already shy, but the whole class was white.

I took my seat and the teacher made me come to the front of the classroom as she introduced me to the class. Some kids giggled at my last name and I wondered why they thought it was funny. I had thought some of their last names, when they introduced themselves to me sounded like a sneeze. I walked back to my desk and the class said the pledge of allegiance. As we were saying it I heard what the boy that sat next to me had said. I even remember his name-Greg.

He said, “Why did they have to put the Indian by me, everyone knows Indians stink. I don’t want to sit by no stinkin’ Indian.”

I remember my face turning hot as I turned to look at him because we were done saying the pledge. He was already at the teachers desk complaining about sitting by me.

I don’t remember how long I went to school there, it’s all kind of a blur. I do know it wasn’t long. I got my way after throwing a fit and moved back to the reservation to live with my Grandma.

What always stands out is remembering how someone hated me at age 6 because of who I am. Not even who I am as a person, but who I am based on my skin color. And this was another 6 year old. When I grew up and looked back on that, I realized he learned it at home. How in the world would a 6 year old child have such pre-concieved notions of another race? Sometimes I wonder about him, wonder how deep that hatred festered in him. Back in 1980, I was the only Indian in a class of about 30. When I moved back years later and my two oldest boys went to school there in kindergarten, they had a class of 31 and 26 were Indians, 2 were Mexican, 2 were black, and one boy was white.

I remember I let myself for a split second think that what if that one white boy was Greg’s son and hoping Greg knew how it felt by that fact. Then I thought, “What the fuck is wrong with me?”

Here I was, letting myself think stupid shit like that when here was a beautiful classroom of color and these kids didn’t know these thoughts. These kids had it right, for the time being. They didn’t give a shit like their parents did. I remember being like that until events unfolded in my own life to not trust.

But that’s how children are. Children usually always have it right because they have no prejudices until they are taught. The rest of the state of South Dakota is messed up. From the media to the social services to the police. You can ask any one Native here if they have ever dealt with racism in this state, and they will tell you they have. Albeit, not everyone is innocent, especially me. But to say I have dealt with racism in this state one or a couple of times would be far from the truth. To say one or a couple hundred times would be closer to the truth, but it would likely be more than that. If you think about it starting at age six and living in this state for the most part of my life, it is easily more than a couple hundred. I wouldn’t even be able to count.

Racism is not always huge and in your face, but you feel it like a pebble in your shoe. You see it daily in the media. It definitely exists in South Dakota. Which by all rights, half the state should belong to the Lakota.

The U.S. Government broke the 1868 Ft Laramie treaty by stealing our sacred Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, because of the gold found there. Then had the nerve to try and buy us out in this lawsuit by offering a settlement.

It took some growing up on my end to realize why we were so defiant to not “sell out” and take the money. As Lakota that is not who we are and the Paha Sapa are sacred to us. Money is not sacred to us like it is to some people. Our ancestors fought fr this land and the way of life, gave blood even. To us, the Black Hills are the center of the Universe. No scientist in the whole world can tell me that’s not true, because I believe that with my whole heart. And to me, it’s true.

And I can feel it when I drive through. Even though it is the biggest tourist trap there is. They have mined the hell out of our sacred land and took it for all its worth and the put up tourist traps that don’t make sense. Places that sell taffy, fudge, and Made in China bead-work. Places with reptiles and sharks and Scandinavian villages. The biggest insult to us is Mt Rushmore. Every one of those presidents had crimes against Indians.

No matter how much gold they took from the Black Hills, or how much money they make from the Black Hills, they are still sacred to us, because that never mattered in the first place. And no matter how much money the government offers for our people to go quietly away, it won’t happen. We will never sell out and we will continue to let people know why.

And I think maybe that is why racism is so thick in this state towards us. I am not saying any person who is not Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota is a racist here. I have friends who aren’t and are cool. I am treated good by way more people on a daily basis than not. Maybe I don’t experience it on a daily basis, maybe it’s only weekly. But to think how the one experience with my old boss wit “reverse racism” traumatized him, he would not walk a half a mile in my shoes on any day.

I believe the people in this state who are racist towards us, and act like they’re not, know deep down in their soul why they are. The same way that deep down in every soul of every person in the Great Lakota-Dakota-Nakota Nation that experienced racism in this state know why they’ve experienced it.

Because the sacred Paha Sapa belong to us, and they were stolen.

‎”Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am Lakota? Because I was born where my father lived? Because I would die for my people and my country?” -Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota