GIAGO: You have to be carefully taught
Notes from Indian Country

GIAGO: You have to be carefully taught

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I recently heard someone say, “One is either a racist or is not.” Is it really that simple?

Several year ago I heard the former Mayor of Rapid City, Don Barnett, give a speech at Memorial Park at the time the Black Hills Powwow was in town. His crowd was mostly Native American. In speaking of racism Barnett took a stanza from the Broadway musical South Pacific. Of racism he said, “It has to be drummed in your dear little ear, you have to be carefully taught. Or maybe racism is a part of the culture or even something that is, or has in the past, been written into the rules of a business or corporation.

After my father retired he moved to Yuma, AZ. He enjoyed his retirement until he was 97 years old and then he passed away. He was in a nursing home at the time and I got a call of the nursing home director informing me of my father’s death and asking me what I wanted to do. I told him I would fly right down there and take care of the funeral arrangements.

When I got there I sat down with the funeral director in his office. He asked, “Is the Bureau of Indian Affairs going to pay for this funeral?” I replied, “No, I am going to take care of it.” To which he replied, “That’s good because these Indians down here get the money for their family funerals and go out and get drunk.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could anyone make such a blatant racist remark when I was there to mourn the death of my father?

I was writing a syndicated column for Knight Ridder the year my father passed away. When I got back to Rapid City after his funeral I was still upset over what the funeral director had said so I wrote a column about it. The Yuma Daily Sun picked up the column and ran it. The local Arizona Native Americans were furious when they read it and went straight to the owners of the funeral parlor. The owners called in the director and fired him.

Did they fire him because he was a racist or because a large part of their income was derived from the local Native American population and they were in danger of losing it? One can only wonder.

My father retired after working at Harrah’s Casino in Reno, Nevada for several years. When I got my honorable discharge from the U. S. Navy I went to Reno to see if I could land a job. I was filling out an application for a job at Harrah’s and my father said, “When you get to the part that says ‘race’ don’t put down “Indian” because they won’t hire you.” He got the job at Harrah’s because he told them he was Italian. My father added, “There is a city ordinance here in Remo that Indians have to be off of the streets by midnight otherwise they are arrested and put in jail.” Welcome to the Biggest Little City in the World.

One of the most aggravating portions of racism takes place in our local department stores. The store’s security people make it a special point to follow Natives as soon as they enter the establishment. One elderly Lakota man was actually wrestled to the floor by a security man and accused of shoplifting. After he was searched and found to have nothing on him it was revealed that he was a minister in the Episcopalian Church. A Lakota woman was shopping in a Rapid department store while carrying her granddaughter. The granddaughter grabbed pencil from a display and stuck into her grandmother’s purse. The Lakota woman was stopped and her purse searched and when they showed her the pencil she honestly told them that she did not know how it got there. She was taken to a security office, interrogated and humiliated and practically strip searched. If these folks were white would they have been treated so rudely?

There was also an incident that happened to me and my friend Chuck Trimble when we were about 10 years old. We were taking a walk in downtown Rapid when we spotted the new revolving door at the Alex Johnson Hotel. Looked like fun so we tried it out only to be harnessed by the doorman, given swift kicks, tossed out into the street with a yell, “Get out of here and stay out you dirty little Indians.”

As history would have it those two “dirty little Indians” are both members of the South Dakota Hall of Fame. I wonder what became of that doorman.

The national protests now taking place are clearly pointing out America’s duality in racial discrimination and justice. It is evident in South Dakota that it is an issue, but it does have a cure. As Mayor Barnett said, “It has to be carefully taught,” and by the same token it can also be “untaught”

(Contact Tim Giago at Giago is the author of 3 books)

Contact Tim Giago at

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