Native Americans Facing Racism in South Dakota

“No wonder these four great Americans look so sad as they look down from Mount Rushmore,” Denver Post columnist Roscoe Fleming wrote in 1962. “For they see incongruous and continuing racism.”

At that time in South Dakota, it was not uncommon to see restaurant and store signs reading “No Indians Allowed.”

Today, the signs fell, but VOA heard from dozens of Native Americans in South Dakota that racism permeates their lives and is particularly prevalent in the state’s second-largest city, Rapid City.

It was here, as VOA reported earlier, that Gateway Grand Hotel owner Connie Uhre announced in March that she would no longer allow Native Americans on the property after a shooting took place there. ; she later turned down two members of the Indian-run non-profit NDN Collective who tried to book a room at her hotel.

Google Earth screenshot of the Grand Gateway Hotel, Rapid City, SD, which turned away native guests.

Sunny Red Bear, director of racial equity for the NDN Collective, is one of two services denied. NDN Collective, short for “Indian”, is an Indigenous-led organization in Rapid City that works to empower Indigenous people.

“Rapid City, like many places in the United States, has a long history of racism that many white people have pledged to defend both on a systemic and interpersonal level, whether they know it or not,” he said. she stated. “Those in positions of power here in Rapid City, by not declaring that systemic racism exists in Rapid City, continue to downplay the lived experiences of Indigenous people and people of color here in the community.”

Janet Davies, the daughter of a Lakota mother and white father, described growing up in a town where she said she was constantly shamed.

“When I was in seventh grade, there was a school dance,” she said. “And this nice boy asked me to come with him. But later he said to me, “I can’t come with you because I found out you have Indian blood. You are a sq—w.’”

She used an ethnic and sexual slur for Indigenous women.

Display of the KKK dress among other artifacts at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Museum in Pierre, SD

Display of the KKK dress among other artifacts at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Museum in Pierre, SD

In April, during a stay at a hospital in Rapid City, Oglala Lakota rights advocate Hermus Bettelyoun posted on Facebook: “I now have a room all to myself here. My [white] my roommate discovered that my skin tone was the wrong color for him. He asked the doctor if they could move me because he didn’t want to “breathe the same air” as [me].”

The town’s Native American residents complain of being stalked around local businesses, being turned down for jobs, and being taunted for “going back to the reservation.”

“I’ve spoken to several moms and dads whose children experience racism in schools by having their hair cut by other students, calling themselves ‘Prairie N-word,'” Red Bear said.

Many have expressed their belief that the state government is racist.

critical race theory

In April, South Dakota Governor Kristie Noem signed an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s elementary school system. The CRT is an academic theory that asserts that racism is not just the product of individual bias or bias, but is embedded in the nation’s legal systems and policies.

“I think his message to us is that we don’t matter and the Native experience in South Dakota doesn’t matter,” the state senator told Native News Online. Democratic Republic of South Dakota, Troy Heinert, a Sicangu Lakota citizen of the Rosebud Reservation. in April.

Red Bear said she views the move as a continuation of historic assimilation policies.

“The lack of education and the lack of conversations about the history of what happened to Indigenous people perpetuates crazy and harmful stereotypes,” Red Bear said.

“I’m fifth-generation Rapid City,” said JB, who asked VOA to withhold his name for fear of repercussions. “Until the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I was just another white man. But when that murder happened, it sparked something in my head. I can tell you that Rapid City is on the front lines of Lots of racism right now. It’s called Racist City for a reason.

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender admits there is a huge divide between “part of the Native American population here and the non-Native citizens.”

“If you look back in history and even today, racism is present on every continent,” he told VOA. “There is nothing different or special about Rapid City when it comes to the flaws of humanity.”

“What I think needs to be emphasized,” he continued, “is that in Rapid City it takes center stage in the news cycle, when there are other parts of the country where this stuff [goes on] and the reaction is far from that.

Historical roots

South Dakota has a history of “tumultuous race relations” dating back to the beginning of white settlement, according to a 2019 report by the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 designated a large area west of the Missouri River as the exclusive territory of the “Great Sioux” tribes – the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota.

The first page of the 1868 Sioux Treaty, negotiated at Fort Laramie, Wyoming.

The first page of the 1868 Sioux Treaty, negotiated at Fort Laramie, Wyoming.

After an 1874 expedition confirmed gold deposits in the Black Hills, miners flocked to the area. When the Lakota refused to sell mineral rights, the government ordered them to reserve and sent in troops when they resisted. The ensuing armed conflict saw the defeat of George Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876, the murder of Chief Lakota Sitting Bull in 1879, and the slaughter of several hundred Indian men, women and children at Wounded Knee.

And, as the South Dakota Civil Rights Advisory Committee noted, “Overt racism and discrimination continued to have a significant impact on South Dakota’s native population throughout the 20th century, and some researchers say they are manifested today in the suppression of political participation and disparities in the criminal justice system.”

Pine Ridge Reservation

Pine Ridge Reservation

Native Americans became citizens in 1924, but South Dakota did not allow them to vote or hold office until 1940. Between 1976, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, and 2002, South Dakota South passed more than 600 laws and regulations impeding Indigenous voting. in some jurisdictions with large indigenous populations.

South Dakota is now home to nine Indian reservations; the 2010 census shows it leads the nation in the percentage of Native Americans living below the poverty line; more than 50% of Native Americans in Rapid City live in poverty.

A Lakota girl rides a bicycle on Pine Ridge, the closest Indian reservation to Rapid City, SD, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2006. At least 60 percent of Pine Ridge's homes are substandard and 30 percent of citizens are homeless.  Photo: AP/Johnny Sunby

A Lakota girl rides a bicycle on Pine Ridge, the closest Indian reservation to Rapid City, SD, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2006. At least 60 percent of Pine Ridge’s homes are substandard and 30 percent of citizens are homeless. Photo: AP/Johnny Sunby

Invisible natives

The First Nations Development Institute conducted a two-year national survey of public opinion toward aboriginal people. Among their discoveries:

  • Most Americans know that Native Americans were oppressed and their lands stolen, but are unaware of the violence involved.
  • Non-natives largely create and control narratives about Native Americans, focusing on deficits such as poverty, alcoholism, and poor health.
  • Most policymakers and judges have little knowledge of Indigenous issues and do not understand America’s treaty obligations to the tribes, who ceded land to the United States in exchange for education, health care , housing and other protections.
  • Non-natives who live near reservations in areas of high unemployment or economically stressed may be unhappy with these rights.

Allender, the mayor of Rapid City, said he thought eradicating racism was an unrealistic goal.

“We can certainly reduce it and we can certainly create an environment where these outward manifestations are not acceptable,” he added. “I want every citizen, whether tourist or resident, a white-skinned person, a dark-skinned person…to receive equal treatment, to have equal opportunities.”

He expressed his frustration with the city’s homeless population.

The city’s annual homeless count in January showed 458 homeless adults and children, 350 of whom were Native Americans. Thirty-nine reported substance abuse and 28 had serious mental illness.

“Almost all of our homeless people in Rapid City are Native Americans,” Allender continued. “And a lot of them are intoxicated. And I will tell you that the homeless are a violent group.

Native rights group NDN Collective erected this billboard in Rapid City, SD to protest hotel discrimination.

Native rights group NDN Collective erected this billboard in Rapid City, SD to protest hotel discrimination.

Red Bear, of NDN Collective, is a Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

“All the talk about our homeless parents and the fact that Aboriginal people have a predisposition to alcoholism comes with many other related misconceptions that fuel the idea that we are morally deficient because of our so-called incapacity to control us, and that all of that makes us a threat to society,” Red Bear said. “These stereotypes are extremely harmful and reveal a lack of compassion and empathy for those struggling.”

In March, NDN Collective filed a lawsuit against hotel owner Connie Uhre and called for a citywide boycott of businesses with racist policies and practices. South Dakota tribal leaders have suggested they could move annual events like the Lakota Nation Invitational Basketball Tournament and the Black Hills Pow Wow, which bring Rapid City millions of dollars in revenue .

The collective said it would not back down until the city imposes “meaningful consequences” on racist business owners.

This angered some white citizens.

“Clearly the Uhre family and their right to engage in commerce have been targeted…for the unpardonable sin of unpopular speech,” one resident wrote to the Rapid City Journal, likening the boycott to “racketeering.”

Mayor Allender also opposes the boycott.

“This hotel is still closed. They’ve probably suffered up to six figures in economic damage, if not more, in the two months they’ve been shut down,” he said, emphasizing his irony: “You’re offended because a family has judged a whole group of people by the actions of one, and now your answer is to judge an entire community because of the actions of one? »

Nohemi M. Moore