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PINE RIDGE | At the start of Tuesday’s hearing for the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the U.S Commission on Civil Rights, Troy Weston talked about the events leading to the cancellation last fall of a high school football game in Sturgis.

“I told them, there’ll be 10,000 Indians there on Friday night,” Weston, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said during his morning panel, with a commissioner present. “Is that what you want?”

During the run-up to a homecoming game against the Pine Ridge High School Thorpes, Sturgis students were photographed bashing in a car painted with derogatory language against Native Americans, including the expression, “Go back to the Rez.”

“That’s not subtle racism,” Weston said. “That’s overt.”

Tuesday’s hearing in the Peacemaking Room at the Justice Center for the People on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was convened by state’s arm of the civil rights commission under the heading of “subtle and socioeconomic racism in South Dakota" and brought together academic, elected officials, and activists sitting around a table. The same group will visit Fort Pierre today. 

Nick Tilsen, of NDN Collective and former executive director of Thunder Valley, a nonprofit near Rockyford on Pine Ridge, said his organization had to apply 27 times for the same USDA grant set for water infrastructure funding. “We eventually found out that $22 million was set aside by Congress each year for this grant, but it never got used,” Tilsen said. 

His co-panelist, Wizipan Garriott Little Elk, director of REDCO, an economic development organization on Rosebud, recalled a conversation with student interns who’d spent summer working custodian and grounds-keeping positions to help keep his organization’s campus clean and one 15-year-old girl remarking, “Now, it looks like white people’s land.”

“She doesn’t have to be turned down a bank loan or a housing opportunity,” Little Elk told the committee, “She already has that racism inside her that to be clean means to be white and to be dirty means to be Indian.”

Many panelists spoke about the changing nature of language in the group's use of the phrase "subtle racism," commonly called “microaggressions."

Cecilia Fire Thunder, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, retired nurse and adjunct professor at Oglala Lakota College, said growing up in Bennett County in the 1940s, they didn’t use the word “racism.”

“Everyone just said, ‘They don’t like Indians in Martin.’”

Now a resident of Martin for the last quarter-century, Fire Thunder said it was a white coworker at the clinic who overheard her talking about her fear of moving to town who offered her a chance to rent an apartment. “I’ve learned that there are a lot of Germans in Bennett County,” she said, in a lighthearted moment. “And not German Catholics, but German Lutherans.” 

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The state committee hopes to collate testimony from panelists into a report to be released later this year on how racism can systemically infect tangible realities from getting a haircut to finding affordable housing. Charles Abourezk, a Rapid City lawyer, spoke about the difficulties many Natives find renting housing upon moving to Rapid City.

“They pay $300 to $350 to live in a motel on East North Street, and they end up having to work these low-wage jobs because no one will hire them.”

Rich Braunstein, chair of the South Dakota Advisory Committee and a professor of political science at the University of South Dakota, commented on the state's need for workforce development and wondered if the state might look to immigrant and indigenous communities to fill those jobs.

Committee member Ira Taken Alive, vice chairman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, agreed. “The schools on the reservation are bursting at the seams.”

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Many panelists spoke about the upcoming fights between indigenous communities and TransCanada over the impending construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline through treaty lands. Brandon Sazue, former chairman of the Crow Creek Tribe, referenced legislation passed in South Dakota in 2017 to more easily disrupt mass protests.

"There seems to be a boiling point," Braunstein said. "Can you update us?"

"Their (the state government's) biggest fear is about the protesting that happened in Standing Rock," Sazue replied.

Braunstein asked if the tribes had thought about recalling the laws through the state's initiated referendum process, the oldest direct democracy provisions in the country.

"Have the tribes ever used this initiative process to advance a legislative agenda?" the professor asked.

"Maybe we just don't know enough about it," Sazue said. "But what also comes to mind is, 'This is not my society.'"

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an independent, bipartisan commission comprising eight commissioners. One commissioner, Karen K. Narasaki, traveled to Pine Ridge to take part in the hearing and described the panelists' testimony as "incredibly helpful," given the commission is preparing a report by year’s end on Native Americans.

Naraski noted previous reports by the commission have led to landmark legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. 

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Contact Christopher Vondracek at Christopher.Vondracek@rapidcityjournal.com.

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