Common Sense Anti-Indianism: Border Town Violence in Rapid City, SD

Paper originally presented at the 15th Annual American Indian Studies Association Conference, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, February 6, 2014. This essay is a shorter version of a longer, in-depth analysis. 

NOTE: For those interested on the research and theoretical work I’ve been doing on border towns since 2012, see: Border Towns: Colonial Logics of Violence, Indian Casino Cartels or Alcohol Cartels? Farmington, NM, First Nations Sculpture Garden: Rapid City and the Politics of Stolen Ground, Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible, and Insanity: Chamberlain, SX and the D/Lakota Honor Song Controversy.

“[T]he ubiquitous denial of Anti-Indianism in our lives and in our scholarship obscures our necessary understanding that there is almost always reason behind tragedy.”
—Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

“Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
—Walter Benjamin

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On Tuesday, August 2, 2011, the Rapid City Police Department was rocked by the unprovoked shooting of three on-duty officers. While conducting a routine stop…, a male suspect pulled out a concealed weapon and began firing. Officer Nick Armstrong, who was patrolling on a bicycle as part of the Street Crimes Unit was struck first. Officer Tim Doyle was shot in the face, but was able to freturn [sic] fire with [sic] the suspect. Officer Ryan McCandless was also hit, and fired 14 shots before falling.

Officer McCandless died later that day. Officer Armstrong died four days later. As Doyle fought to recover, the department, community, and law enforcement agencies from across the country came together as a family to grieve for our fallen heroes. [Emphases added]


Printed on the second page of the Rapid City Police Department’s (RCPD) 2011 Annual Report is a black and white photograph (see above image) of mainly white onlookers of all ages looking northward on Rapid City’s Mount Rushmore Road toward an oncoming procession. A motorcade of emergency vehicles escorts the bodies of two Rapid City Police (RCP) officers, Nick Armstrong and Ryan McCandless, killed in the line of duty. The picture evokes the well-known images of the “Fallen Heroes” of 9/11. Even the photo’s caption—“Fallen Heroes”—arouses parallels with the “unforgettable” tragedy.[1]

This essay critically interrogates the shooting-deaths of the two RCP officers and the twenty-two-year-old Oglala “male suspect,” Daniel Tiger. I read the August 2 shootings as a spectacle of colonial violence that does political and emotional work, often obscuring and displacing histories and realities of colonial occupation and violence. Kahnewake scholar Audra Simpson identifies these colonial spectacles as especially useful “because they continue to redirect emotions, histories, and possibilities away from the means of societal and historical—Indigenous dispossession, disenfranchisement, and containment.”[2] Furthermore, the language of the 2011 report elicits feelings of unanticipated consequences of a routine stop resulting in the “unprovoked shooting” of three RCP officers. Absent from the official narrative, however, is the routineness of stopping Native people in Rapid City and the history of colonial dispossession that epitomizes the city’s antagonistic relationship with the Oyate.[3] The report also invokes feelings of belonging to a “community” that came together as a “family” to mourn and grieve the tragedy of “fallen heroes”—the violent deaths of RCP officers. Routineness gave way to tragedy. Tragedy gave way to collective mourning as community, as family. Yet, both terms—family and community—engender a sense of belonging, loyalty, commitment, and idealized sense of collectivity that, through emotional investment and responsible samaritanship, promises happiness. Fulfilling the promise of happiness is contingent upon committing oneself to family, community, or nation with the expectation of reciprocation, even if happiness is deferred, never achieved, or violently disrupted.[4] Or, in the case of the August 2 shootings, community and family are defined through a sense of collective loss and collective mourning.

Benedict Anderson theorizes that collective tragedy or mourning fuels “emotional legitimacy” to “nation-ness”—or the transforming of fatality into national continuity. In this sense, family and community (or nation) become the objects of futurity, which require investments in time, energy, resources, and emotions.[5] Threats to sense of national futurity must be vigilantly guarded against as one would protect property through the use of force and violence. Thus, in the case of a predominantly white border town, whiteness becomes, as legal scholar Cheryl Harris argues, a form of property, or “whiteness as property,” that must be defended and upheld through law, social norms, and the exercise of violence.[6]

It is here at the multiple sites of community, family, whiteness, and property that produce spectacles of colonial violence and emotional economies that isolate, exclude, and cause unnatural deaths to “ungrievable” Native bodies. These emotional economies are historically contingent moral, political, economic, and social realities that produce what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feelings.” These structures of feelings are “changes of presence,” or experienced realities “while they are being lived” or “when they have been lived.” While they are “emergent or pre-emergent,” they are not adequately defined or rationalized, but felt and/or enacted,[7] which produce what Antonio Gramsci defines as common sense, or a type of “historical becoming” that is a set of perceptions and feelings that are continually transforming and emerging.[8] Ultimately, common sense assembles a moral economy of feelings and emotions based on structures of feelings. This common sense, everyday affective response to historic and ongoing Native bodily violence and dispossession in Rapid City generates what Dakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn identifies as “anti-Indianism.”[9] When coupled with colonial occupation and border town realities, they produce what I call anti-Indianism as common sense.

To this effect, I examine how the legal and moral systems currently in place in Rapid City produce mobilize anti-Indian sentiment through everyday common sense, affect, and ideological practice. Through the routineness of policing Native bodies, Daniel Tiger’s violent act brought the hushed silence of everyday violences Natives experience to a public space that resulted in the destruction of his own body along with two RCP officers. This particular colonial violence is what Achille Mbembe describes as the “phenomenology of violence” or the “spirit of violence” that “insinuates itself into the economy, the domestic life, language consciousness. It does more than penetrate every space: it pursues the colonized even in sleep and dream. It produces a culture; it is a culture of praxis.”[10]

Rapid City: Border Town

To know Rapid City, however, we must begin with the acknowledgement that it has been historically at the heart of colonial empire and occupation of Oyate treaty and ancestral homelands. Much in the same way to know global finance capital is to the know its epicenter, its capital, New York City; and to know the militarization of the globe is to know Washington, D.C. as its capital. Colonial outposts, or border towns, inhabit and make up the spaces in between the epicenters of settler colonial occupation. They encapsulate the entrepreneurial and brute force of invasion and occupation, simultaneously speculative (boom and bust) and inherently coercive toward Native land and populations. Marking historical transitions of the political economy of the Indian Wars, settlement, statehood, and economic development, the Black Hills (or He Sapa) were (and are) a central feature for the forceful subduing of the Oyate. Likewise, Rapid City served as a “gateway” for this occupying force of colonial capitalism.

Following the “Great Sioux War of 1876,” boomers and speculators highly coveted the 24 million acres of “Sioux Territory” set aside for protection under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The 1877 Black Hills Act through stroke of the pen accomplished what could not be achieved through brute force. It “legally” ceded through Congress’ plenary power the area known as the Black Hills, which constituted a violation of the “trust responsibility” for over 1.3 million acres of treaty land.[11] Enforcing this seizure, however, did not mean the invaders peaceably accumulated land through legal reasoning alone. Prospects of statehood and economic development would require extending the U.S. military campaigns of outright extermination to low level skirmishes with Oyate to shore up territorial security and permanence.

“Dakota fever” plagued early settlers from 1878 to 1887. Coming out of a five-year national economic recession, plans for a yeoman farming empire in the western half of Dakota Territory fueled the mass settlement of He Sapa and the surrounding plains of Sioux Territory. The population of settlers and prospectors in the area doubled from 1880 to 1890.  Acreage of land deeds also correlated with the population boom, soaring from 163,739 acres in 1877 to 941,800 acres in 1878 and finally 1,123,233 acres in 1887.[12] What was known as the “Great Dakota Boom” entailed the speculative investment of railroads, mining, homesteading, and ranching in Oyate territory. The only thing that stood in the way of securing occupation was the task of further containment, dispossession, and elimination of the “hostile element among the Indians who want to rove at will and live as formerly in their wild state.”[13]

Granted statehood on March 4, 1889, South Dakota’s state government began culling anxiety and hatred toward the Oyate: “Early developers firmly believed the only way to improve economic conditions in the state was to move Indians out of the way.”[14] Rapid City and the town’s newspaper, The Rapid City Journal, became ground zero for calling for increase arms and policing of Native peoples. In fact, the infamous South Dakota Home Guard, euphemistically known as “The Cowboy Militia,” headquartered in Rapid City, became the vigilante arm for policing the Oyate if they left the reservation. In early December of 1890, they gave insidious meaning behind the phrase “off the reservation” when they slaughtered seventy-five Lakota near the Cheyenne River for leaving the Pine Ridge reservation.[15] The Journal and the Home Guard’s calls for war and extermination came to a head when the Seventh Calvary massacred about 300 Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890. Dissatisfied with the outcomes of the so-called “Indian War of 1890-1891,” South Dakota settlers further complained that the Oyate had not been adequately punished, since not an acre of land was ceded and they had not been exterminated nor fully removed: “In frontier parlance, the Indian problem had not been settled.”[16]

The failure of not settling the “Indian problem” through physical extermination extended into the twentieth century as federal Indian policy moved from removal to assimilation policies. Although Rapid City remained the colonial epicenter for western South Dakota, on June 21, 1906 Congress granted 1,391 acres of land to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the construction of the Rapid City Indian School, which would annually house 250 Native students until its closing in 1934. From 1934 to 1956, the 1,391 acres were eventually sold off to the Rapid City School District (14 acres in 1948), the City of Rapid City (200 acres in 1949 and 27 acres in 1952), the South Dakota National Guard (673 acres in 1950), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (27 acres in 1953), the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Board (118 acres in 1974), and various Christian churches (263 acres from 1948 to 1956). The Indian Health Service retained 42 acres for Sioux Sanitarium Hospital and 27 acres were set aside for the establishment of Sioux Addition in 1962. Despite the “trust responsibilities” of Congress, little or no consent from the Oyate was given to validate these land exchanges and jurisdictional incorporation into the Rapid City municipality.[17] Much historical scholarship has focused on the usurpation of large swaths of land from the Oyate following the Great Dakota Boom and 1887 Allotment Act, but little if any scholarly attention has been paid to the historic processes of urban land dispossessions in border towns like Rapid City.[18]

The creation of the Sioux Addition in 1962 just north of the Rapid City’s city limits concentrated the Native urban population, but also ghettoized what would become known as North Rapid City. The Native residents of North Rapid City were largely cut-off from the city proper, without sewage and running water, voting rights, and adequate roads and infrastructure. Furthermore, the geographic and structural oppression Natives experienced in North Rapid City dispelled the relocation and termination logics of reservations being rural isolated pockets of poverty.[19]

Life Lived in the Negative

In the Associated Press’ Great Plains award-winning August 7, 2011 article, “No Words Could Ease Such Grief,” Rapid City Journal reporter, Kevin Woster, writes the August 2 “unfathomable act of violence by a young Native American man, 22-year-old Daniel Tiger” resonates with the local Rapid City community grieving the loss of two RCP officers killed in the line of duty. “[T]he apparent perpetrator of this horrible act,” writes Woster, “was himself a human tragedy, with loved ones here [in Rapid City] who hurt.” Officers Ryan McCandless and Nick Armstrong, he continues, “made dozens of stops each week similar to the one they made with Tiger and three companions,” and the felled officers were “in the business of saving such kids from themselves, and from disastrous conclusions.”[20] While the RCP officers lives were honored with words that “could not ease such grief,” the life and death of Daniel Tiger was chalked up as a “human tragedy.” His life could only be saved from itself. This was the official report.

And that report went something like this: on August 2, 2011 at approximately 4:20 p.m. RCP officer Tim Doyle responded to what was described as a “routine stop” of four individuals who “appeared to be under the influence of alcohol” in a North Rapid City neighborhood at the intersections of East Anamosa Street and Greenbriar Streets.[21] Shortly after officer Doyle approached the individuals, officers Nick Armstrong and Ryan McCandless arrived on scene.  After officers failed to obtain the identity of Daniel Tiger (Oglala), he revealed a .357 caliber revolver and opened fire on the officers killing Armstrong and McCandless and wounding Doyle. Tiger’s shooting and killing of the officers was ruled as an “unprovoked” attack. In the exchange Tiger also sustained gunshot wounds and died the next day. In an official investigation by South Dakota State’s Attorney, a witness’ interview alleges Tiger disclosed the following: “he wanted to die because he had no job, no home, and nothing to live for; he was facing prison time if he got caught and did not want to go prison; he wanted to go out with a bang.”[22] Another Journal article detailed a long wrap sheet of seventeen charges that included assault against a law enforcement officer, “violent or gang-related offenses,” alcohol and drug possession, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. In 2008, Tiger served a five month prison sentence was paroled and sent back for eleven more months for a parole violation. At the time of August 2 shooting, Tiger was on a 30-day suspended jail sentence for assault.[23]

Although an adult at the time of the shooting, Tiger’s story represents a common reality many Native youth face in Rapid City. Lakota journalist Jesse Abernathy, for example, surmises that the Rapid City school district works in tandem with the Department of Corrections in the targeting the school system’s high Native population is a “school-to-prison-pipeline.” Investigating the school district’s “Zero Tolerance” policies and hiring of uniformed officers, Abernathy notes the rise in policing of Native students through the Pennington County Sheriff Department’s partnership with Rapid City public schools. With a Native high school dropout rate of over fifty percent, children as young as eleven and twelve receive harsher sentences than adults through Juvenile Detention Center-sponsored “alternative education.” As a result around seventy percent of students in JDC-sponsored education programs end up at a Department of Corrections facility, sometimes remaining there until they are twenty one.[24]

Moreover, South Dakota’s prison incarceration rates are significantly higher than the neighboring states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. With an overall decrease in crime down nine percent from the last two decades, South Dakota’s imprisonment rate is ten times higher than the national average, growing over 500 percent since 1977 (720 inmates) to 2012 (3,600 inmates). Of the 3,600 inmates, Native inmates number close 1,110, over thirty percent of the total population while only constituting about nine percent (73,835 as of 2010) of the state’s population (833,354 as of 2010).[25]

In Rapid City, as of 2012 Native inmates make up more than forty-two percent of the inmate population (around 70 inmates total on average) of the Pennington County Jail and serve thirty-seven percent of all the time served by the total inmate population.[26] This overrepresentation stands in stark contrast to the fact that Natives make up twelve percent (8,662 as of 2010) of the total population of Rapid City (69,854 as of 2012). The hyper-incarceration rates of Natives in Rapid City is greater than the reservation-based incarceration rates. These incarceration rates also correlate directly with reservation-based and urban poverty of Natives. For example, forty-eight percent of South Dakota’s Native population lives below the poverty line, while in Rapid City Native poverty rates exceed fifty percent.[27]

These statistics disrupt the narratives of reservations being pockets of rural poverty and crime. The fact is that the urban Native population in Rapid City is more likely to live in poverty and be arrested than reservation-based Native populations in South Dakota. In this sense, Rapid City as a colonial border town functions to negate the Oyate’s presence through increased structural oppression. In the case of Daniel Tiger and the Journal’s pathologizing of his criminal and deviant behavior, August 2 brought to bear the public, hushed secret of Native oppression and disenfranchisement. But the routineness of the August 2 stop had a brutal and violent precedent.

On May 7, 2010 twenty-two-year-old college-bound Oglala man, James Capps, was shot five times in the back from fourteen feet away by Pennington County Deputy Sherriff’s Deputy David Olson for allegedly reaching in his pocket when commanded to turn around. Capps was unarmed except for a piece of driftwood found near his body. Officer Olson pursued Capps for allegedly stealing a bicycle. An internal investigation revealed Olson’s killing of Capps was “justifiable.”[28] Prior to these shooting deaths, eight men’s bodies (six of whom were Lakota) were found drowned in Rapid Creek between 1998 and 1999. Although many suspected foul play, the RCPD ruled the deaths of Benjamin Long Wolf, George Hatten, Alan Hough, Randelle Two Crow, Loren Two Bulls, Dirk Bartling, Arthur Chamberlain, and Timothy Bull Bear as drowning after drinking heavily.[29]

No public ceremony was held to commemorate Tiger, Capps, or the eight drowning victims. Although the Oyate publicly protested in 2010 and 2011 after the deaths of Capps and Tiger in what has been labeled as “war against Natives by the RCPD,” RCP Chief Steve Allender reasoned at a community forum in March 2012 that there is no war and that: “There are so many sides to the story. We have the Native people, who want to see the land given back, and the people who are more assimilated into non-Native culture; and the people who are very traditional… All of these groups are asking for different things and it is difficult to determine what we are supposed to do.”[30] In one sweeping statement, Allender equated the Oyate to a spatially and temporally fractured community of those who were too Native and those not Native enough—or read differently, Natives presence still remains a spectacle for conjecture. Lenape scholar Joanne Barker observes this kind of logic as enabling the production of legal and social justifications for whites occupying Native lands. She writes, “Natives are never quite Native enough to deserve the distinction and rights granted to them under the law which extends ‘special’ rights and privileges to Natives out the benevolence of those in power.”[31] Asking why the RCPD was not outraged over the unnatural deaths and killing of the Lakota men, Elaine Holy Eagle posed the question more than a decade earlier at a 1999 community forum: “Is it because people are conditioned to believe it’s okay if an Indian person is killed?”[32]

Indeed the August 2, 2011 shooting deaths of two RCP officers at the hands of Daniel Tiger ruptured and brought to the surface Native lives lived in the negative of the colonial border town of Rapid City. It was never a question if the unnatural deaths of Natives at the hands of police or the everyday violences experienced under occupation were to be grieved. They are simply ungrievable. Nonetheless, the mass incarceration and criminalization of Native bodies is seen as an everyday lived reality. Anti-Indianism as common sense, as an historical phenomenon, left unchallenged, renders Native lives as the disposable refuse of an unfavorable history and therefore ineligible for meaningful mourning, personhood, and realization.

[1] Emphases added. Rapid City Police Department, Annual Report 2011 (Rapid City: City of Rapid City, 2012), 5.

[2] Audra Simpson, “Settlement’s Secret,” Cultural Anthropology 26(2) (2011), 206-207.

[3] I use the term Oyate to describe the Oceti Sakowin (Nation of the Seven Council Fires or the Great Sioux Nation). Although “Sioux” is the most common name, it is also a contentious label that was given to the Oyate. Official titles of the Oyate do, however, use “Sioux” as a general description (such as the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, etc.). For the proposes of reclaiming and claiming what we have historically and continue to call ourselves, I will use Oyate to describe the people and nations of the Oceti Sakowin or “The Great Sioux Nation.”

[4] See Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2012).

[5] Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects,” in The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and J. Seigworth (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 38.

[6] Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106(8): 1707-1794.

[7] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 131-132.

[8] Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 326n5. I draw specifically on the the translators’ note that provides an alternative translation of Gramsci’s definition of common sense as “part of the historical process.” They write: “In the original ‘un divenire storico’—historical becoming. For this aspect of common sense see Int., p. 144: ‘Every social stratum has its own “common sense” and its own “good sense”, which are basically the most widespread conception of life and of man. Every philosophical current leaves behind a sedimentation of “common sense”: this is the document of its historical effectiveness. Common sense is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life. “Common sense” is the folklore of philosophy, and is always half-way between folklore properly speaking and the philosophy, science, and economics of specialists. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, that is as a relatively rigid phase of popular knowledge at a give place and time.”

[9] Cook-Lynn writes, “The traits of Anti-Indianism are as follows: first and foremost, it is the sentiment that results in unnatural death to Indians. Anti-Indianism is that which treats Indians and their tribes as though they don’t exist, the sentiment suggests that Indian nationhood (i.e., tribalism) should be disavowed and devalued. It is anything in history and literature that does not invest itself in Indian audiences. Second, Anti-Indianism is that which denigrates, demonizes, and insults being Indian in America. The third trait of Anti-Indianism is the use of historical event and experience to place the blame on Indians for an unfortunate and dissatisfying history. And, finally, Anti-Indianism is that which exploits and distorts cultures and beliefs. All of these traits have conspired to isolate, to expunge or expel, to menace, to defame.” In Anti-Indianism, x.

[10] Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 173, 175.

[11] Mario Gonzalez in Mario Gonzalez and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, The Politics of Hallowed Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle of Indian Sovereignty (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 137.

[12] Herber Schell, History of South Dakota, 4th ed. (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2004), 158-159.

[13] General Nelson Miles quoted on December 15, 1890 in Rapid City, SD in Philip Hall’s To Have This Land: The Nature of Indian/White Relations, South Dakota, 1888-1891 (Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press, 1991), 136.

[14] Hall, 2.

[15] Gonzalez, The Politics of Hallowed Ground, 177.

[16] Hall, 128.

[17] U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Sioux Sanitorium Lands, Rapid City, South Dakota (Aberdeen: BIA Area Office, 1974).

[18] See for example: Jeffery Ostler, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism From Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground (New York: Viking, 2010).

[19] U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Urban Indian Problems: Subcommittee Hearing at Rapid City, SD on September 8, 1971 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Press, 1971).

[20] Kevin Woster, “Personal Column: No Words Could Ease Such Grief,” Rapid City Journal, August 7, 2011.

[21] Kevin Woster, “‘Routine stop’ turned into a nightmare,” Rapid City Journal, August 3, 2011; State of South Dakota, Office of the Attorney General, Rapid City Police Department Shooting Summary Detailing Events that Took Place on August 2, 2011 (Pierre, 2011), 1.

[22] State of South Dakota, 1-3.

[23] David Montgomery, “Shooting Suspect had Long History of Trouble,” Rapid City Journal, August 4, 2011.

[24] Jesse Abernathy, “Educators Discuss School to Prison Pipeline,” Native Sun News, November 7, 2011.

[25] State of South Dakota, South Dakota Criminal Justice Initiative, Final Report November 2012 (Pierre: 2012).

[26] Andrea Cook, “Violent Crime Rates Rising in Rapid City,” Rapid City Journal, February 26, 2013.

[27] Suzanne Macartney, Alemeyehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007-2011: American Community Survey Briefs (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2013), 1, 10.

[28] Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy David Olson Shooting Summary that Occurred on May 2, 2010 (Rapid City: Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, 2010).

[29] Chet Brokaw, “Multiple Drownings Stymie South Dakota Police,” Los Angeles Times, September 26, 1999.

[30] Karin Eagle, “Racial Tensions are Still High in Rapid City,” Native Sun News, March 30, 2012.

[31] Joanne Barker, Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[32] Eagle.

Insanity: Chamberlain, SX and the D/Lakota Honor Song Controversy

The last four years at Chamberlain High School has to my mind witnessed a significant limitation to the routes of possibility for Native students. That is, students and community members (Native and non-Native) have struggled long and hard for what many South X school districts have already conceded—the simple act of allowing a traditional D/Lakota honor song to be sung at a high school commencement ceremony. It may seem to most a simple request—a not too radical and non-offensive gesture that seemingly doesn’t discriminate against non-Native students.

But, if the Chamberlain School Board has virulently resisted having the song sung at a graduation ceremony, what does that say about D/Lakota honors songs? Are they offensive? Are they coded with non-English words that may be telling Natives to overthrow the government? Of course not. Four years of actively resisting an honor song to be sung at a high school graduation does say something about the town of Chamberlain, at the least the values of the community reflected in the Chamberlain School Board.

I’m tired of writing about this issue. I’m tired of reading about it in the news and on Facebook. I’m tired of it interrupting visits with relatives when I come home. I’m tired of the back and forth of who has the right to talk about this: are students to blame? Are adults to blame? Are school administrators to blame? Are community members to blame? These questions beat around the bush, since what we’re talking about is power—or as Chamberlain School Board President Rebecca Reimer reiterated (almost comically), “It’s about control and power. It’s about control and power.” Who has the power to silence a voice, a song, a people, a nation? Who gives them that authority, and why do we invest respect for that authority in those individuals? These may seem like rhetorical questions. But if we continue to play the blame game and not acknowledge the white elephant in the room (no pun intended), we will always arrive back where we started—doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

This is the definition of insanity.

If we look at the town of Chamberlain, we will see that many of the town’s residents are Republicans, staunch Republicans at that. But this is not a bipartisan issue. What this is about is land. Without a doubt, Republican controlled local and state governments hack and slash education budgets. So then why do people continue to elect them? Land. Pure and simple.

Electing conservative candidates to the school board is not about a quality education and equal access, it is about keeping property taxes low. If you don’t believe me, maybe the eerie silence from local Chamberlain community members who elected these school board members into office says something. Recent news reports and statements from community members stress that “not all of Chamberlain is racist.” But you don’t see droves of community members filing petitions against the school board. You don’t see droves up in arms against a blatant act of institutional racism.

Democracy worked. Property taxes are low. And the majority of the school board is still vehemently opposed to the honor song.

So why should we expect different results when the same people are elected into office for the same reasons that have nothing to do with education? The ball is in your court, Chamberlain. The rest of the nation and the world has weighed in. Even the SX Indian Education Summit recently decided to pull its conference from the Oacoma/Chamberlain area because of the school board’s decision. What next?

Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible

NOTE: Unless cited, I use “X” in place of “Dakota” in “South Dakota” or “SD” to show respect for the Dakota people and reclaim the name from anti-Indian state governments and institutions. Dakota means “ally” and WoDakota means “peace and harmony.” Neither of these two meanings reflect the beliefs and attitudes of state governments towards Dakota people.

Chamberlain Must Go!

“The racist town of Chamberlain should be erased from the map!” Elizabeth Cook-Lynn declared to a standing-room only crowd of Natives and non-Natives who erupted into applause, cheers, and high pitched LE-LE-LE-LEs this summer at the Ite Sni symposium held at School of Mines campus. The elder Native stateswoman spoke about her life growing up in Crow Creek during the 30s, 40s, and 50s and the profound anti-Indian sentiment she experienced in the towns of Chamberlain and Oacoma. She made reference to the fact that anti-Indianism in Chamberlain has a long history and tradition; and the school board’s continued battle to fight the singing of a D/Lakota honor song at a high school commencement ceremony is testament to this tradition. So we shouldn’t be surprised. We shouldn’t be mad, angry Indians, because we should just expect Chamberlain to behave the way Chamberlain does.

What was most surprising was that everyone had a common sense about Chamberlain being a racist town, even, ironically, non-Native members of the Rapid City community! But what is Chamberlain’s historic anti-Indian common sense and why is it so productive in protecting its whiteness? Before this question can be adequately answered, we should turn to the history of Chamberlain.

Anti-Indian History

When the infamous Lewis and Clark expedition began to navigate through “hostile” Sioux territory in late September 1804, they camped on sandbars and tried to avoid the Teton Sioux nation whom the explorers described as “vilest miscreants of the savage race.” Soon the “miscreants” discovered the explorers and a tense three day stand-off took place at what is now the Big Bend of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation. Lewis and Clark did not want to pay passage for their trespassing and soon kidnapped the son of a chief to guarantee their safe travel. This transgression set the precedent of Lakota-U.S. relations in the area. The behavior of succeeding settlers in the area changed little.

After Lewis and Clark came trappers and traders that began to settle near the Whetstone Agency, which was south of present-day Oacoma. Fleeing for their lives from the murderous, total war campaign waged by Colonel Henry Sibley to round up and exterminate the refugees of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, Dakota relatives took shelter in the bluffs along the Missouri River at present-day Chamberlain. Thousands of Dakota men, women, and children were killed for scalp bounties for their participation in the 1862 uprising. Lakota relatives pitied the Dakota who fled the war and helped hide them among their camps. The place where they hid became known as Tipi Maka Oyanke, or Cave Dwellers Camp.

Chamberlain was formally founded as a railroad town in 1881 and served as the gateway for gold miners seeking fortunes in the opening of the Black Hills in 1877. Richard H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, attempted to coax the Oyate (the Great Sioux Nation) into opening up the “Great Sioux Reservation” in 1888. This became known as the Pratt Commission. Anti-Indian sentiment in “Dakota Territory” fueled indignation towards the Oyate’s refusal to capitulate with the Pratt Commission, thus the measure failed. Leaders in Dakota Territory then pressured Congress to pass a bill of force sale to open up the the “Great Sioux Reservation.”

This bill became known as the “Sioux bill” of 1888 and resulted in the forced sale of over 9 million acres of land to be opened for homesteading. Some of the land was purchased at less than a dollar an acre. Some was “given away free” to white settlers. It remains as one the largest mass, illegal dispossessions of Native land in U.S. history.

In To Have This Land, historian Philip S. Hall recounts:

Citizens throughout the territory, particularly those in the Black Hills and along the Missouri River, were overjoyed. Many held formal celebrations with bonfires, speeches and parades. Chamberlain held a grand inaugural reservation ball. Partygoers there were entertained by young [white] men dressed and painted as Indians galloping their horses through the streets and staging war dances on the corners. The citizens held a mock sitting of the Pratt Commission as an expression of their contempt for the men who had failed to open the reservation.

In 1898, the Bureau of Indian Affairs founded Chamberlain Indian School on the land that is now St. Joseph’s Indian School and was once Crow Creek trust land all the way to American Creek. That same year, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was built in Canton, SX. Many D/Lakota children and adults from the Lower Brule and Crow Creek agencies were forced to attend these institutions, which functioned to domesticate, often violently and sometimes resulting in death, young children, “sexually deviant” adults, and medicine people. What this meant, in some cases, was the lobotomization of those deemed sexually or behaviorally immoral, or those that were winkte or “talked to spirits.”  Boarding school children were violently disciplined to adhere to the moral standards of white settler society. To say these institutions served as places for just assimilation is an act of violence. These were institutions of genocide intent on stripping Native people from any semblance of themselves.

In 1909, the Chamberlain Indian School closed its doors, but the boarding school model was re-established on the former BIA school’s lands by Roman Catholic Priest Henry Hogebach. Canton Asylum remained open until 1934, taking in hundreds of Native peoples from around the U.S.—nine of ten died at the asylum. The remaining trust lands north of American Creek eventually became incorporated into Chamberlain’s jurisdiction.

In 1944, Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Act, which channeled federal dollars towards damming the Missouri River. Nine sites were designated for dams, most of which were on Sioux Indian reservations. Facing the dual threats of federal termination policy and the inundation of agency buildings in the early 1950s, Crow Creek and Lower Brule were forced to negotiate with local communities about possible sites for relocating their vital infrastructure. South X congressmen E. Y. Berry and Francis Case advocated for relocating the agencies and reservation services to Chamberlain. In response to proposed move and possibility of integrating the white community with the two tribal agencies, the Brule County Commissioners issued the following in 1951:

[The Brule County Commissioners] hereby expresses its firm belief that if such [agency] offices are moved within Brule County that as a result of such move Brule County would necessarily be forced to provide the necessaries of life for a considerable number of reservation members moving into the county, and this would place an intolerable financial burden on Brule County, South Dakota.

In 1954, the Mayor of Chamberlain Hershel V. Melcher echoed the Commissioners plea with a more threatening tone:

Lately the Indian Offices at Fort Thompson, S.D. say they want to move into Chamberlain, S.D., [and it] seems they want to come whether we like it or not. Some of the boys in the Community Club seem to favor it but the people in town are most all against it. If they come in here, it will be necessary to declare open season on Indians and Government Agents, we do not feel that we are entitled to this kind of abuse from the government and we do not intend to take it peacefully… The people of Brule County do not feel we should be saddled with a relief load for Indians, that is the job of the Federal Government, and we do not intend to let an Indian light around here at all. We do not want to live with them, we don’t want them in our schools… [W]e advise you that if it come in [sic], we will then do everything we can to get rid of it and to make them wish they were not here. We do not intend to even be gentlemen about it, this is an unjust imposition on us any way you look at it.

The City Commissioners also passed the following resolution:

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED by the City Commission of the City of Chamberlain, Brule County, South Dakota, that we are opposed to the moving of the Indian Offices from Ft. Thompson, S.D., to the City of Chamberlain, S.D., for all the above reasons and for the further reasons that [it] creates an extra police problem as to drunks and petty larceny. That we therefore strongly oppose any such move to the City of Chamberlain.

Signed: Mayor Hershel V. Melcher, Commissioner C. L. McDonald, Commissioner Frank C. Knippling, Commissioner Willard Wristen, Commissioner Gerrit Brink, and Commissioner Edward C. Martin [then Democrat Candidate for Governor of South Dakota]

Unhappy by the lack of the response, Melcher went on the offensive again:

As I advised you [Congressmen] before, we have no intention of making an Indian comfortable around here, especially an official. We have a few dollar diplomats that have been making a lot of noise and trying to get everyone they possibly could to write you people in Washington that they wanted the Indians in here but the fact is that 90% of the people are strongly opposed to it and will get much more so if this thing come in [sic]. Anybody who rents them any property will have to change his address and I would not want the insurance on his building. We do not feel that this town should be ruined by a mess like this and we do not intend to take this lying down irregardless [sic] of what some official in Washington may think.

These deep-seated anti-Indian sentiments resulted in the relocation of the agencies to Oacoma and eventually back to their respective tribes. But the incident and the culminating history was not forgotten nor lost on the D/Lakota.

Following a string of sex abuses scandals at St. Joseph’s Indian School that have come to light in recent years, a class action law suit was building against the owners of the boarding school, the Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart. Former Native students of the school came forward and testified about the physical and sexual abuse they endured from priests and staff. In 2011, Steven Smith of Chamberlain, and lawyer for Sacred Heart, wrote and submitted a “constituent bill” to the SX state legislature. The bill (HB 1104) “flew through the legislature” and set the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims to file civil suits against institutions after the age of forty. Under this law plaintiffs over age 40 may file for damages only from individual perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. They may not, however, collect damages from institutions such as the Sacred Heart or the religious organizations that hired and supervised the alleged perpetrators. Smith told the Argus Leader in 2010 “nobody knew I was doing this.”

Many have commented on the state’s complicity to cover-up the sexual abuse of Native children at religious boarding schools. Attorney for the Native plaintiffs told the Huffington Post in 2011 that “The South Dakota legislators are on record as passing this bill to get rid of hard-to-defend Native cases.”

This historical survey is one small slice of a larger history of anti-Indian sentiment and behavior. To go into further detail would require a full-length book.


How is it that a town of about 2100 people can have so many “bad apples”? We cannot chalk up the history of the anti-Indianism in Chamberlain to a select few individuals, but it is a history that is endemic to the mentality and common sense of its institutions and white population. The recent controversies of whether or not a D/Lakota honor song appropriately reflects Chamberlain’s “tradition” represents just one instance in a long line of instances in which the vitriolic Indian hating comes to a head.

Board members Rebecca Reimer (President), Jay Blum, Casey Hutmacher, Leann Larson, Dallas Thompson, and Ted Petrak will join the ranks of Chamberlain’s 132 year history of Indian haters for voting against the honor song in May 2013. But these individuals represent an institution, which is supposed to represent the values of the populations it serves. That institution represents the standards of the town and its people.

The Chamberlain school district has caused injury, but it is not an exceptional nor isolated sentiment. It follows the tradition of Chamberlain’s Indian hating. Whenever I tell people where I was born and raised, if they’ve heard of it, their face contorts. “Really? Chamberlain?” they ask. It is personal recognition and repugnance that this small town harbors so much infamy for being racist. But racist is too polite a term.

I have written academic and informal pieces about Chamberlain in the past. As a result, I have also received threats of bodily harm from former white classmates and friends. I ask them, what are you defending? Are you defending and condoning this behavior? Or are you defending your whiteness? The last question usually ends the conversation. What I am talking about concerns whiteness and a very old school kind of racism. But it’s more than that. It is a deep-seated common sense that somehow recognizing or conceding anything to Native people will destroy the core values of Chamberlain. It is a community founded on violent colonial dispossession. Talking about that will put a target on your back and, in my case, cause threats of violence. But I refuse to be silent.

But can you refute history? Can you change it? Chamberlain and its people have yet (beside a small minority) to show themselves worthy of being neighbors and cohabiters along the Missouri. Saying that history is in the past only reproduces violence and anti-Indianism in the present. It removes it from the reality many Native people face today because of that history. It makes our stories less worthy, and thus makes us less worthy.

It is not the job of Native people to bear the unfair burden of living with this history. It is incumbent upon white settlers to learn and help undo inequalities of the present. The world is watching Chamberlain. The Oceti Sakowin is watching and waiting as well. We will continue to move forward, even if Chamberlain chooses not to.

As the school board tables the honor song for the spring 2014 graduation, let us not forget the injuries that have been done. For a just resolution to the problem Chamberlain presents, it may require a radical departure from the past. It may require white settlers and the institutions that defend whiteness to recognize themselves as perpetrators of historical and ongoing human rights violations against Native peoples. It may require understanding that white settlers are occupying and benefiting from stolen land. It may, as Waziyatawin notes, require solutions “just short of breaking camp.”

Hecutu Welo!

The Politics of Being Included at the University of South Dakota

Is the University of South Dakota kidding itself with its diversity statement “everyone belongs”? The last several years’ news articles, diversity reports, letters to the editor, opinion pieces, documentary films, racist incidents, and student frustration should have caught the eye of the casual observer. The problems many have addressed are not new, but have been going on for the past twelve years.

For reaccreditation in 2001, the Higher Learning Commission required USD to submit a diversity monitoring report by June 1, 2004 and a progress report by June 1, 2006. Responding to the lack of diverse student, staff, and faculty populations that the two reports highlighted, USD’s administration created the Office of Diversity and the position of Chief Diversity Officer. The Officer position, since 2005, has experienced high turnover. In fact, the position has been filled by an interim going on three years with no announcement of a permanent hire.

To observe USD’s hiring freeze because of the 2008 economic crisis, USD probably won’t fill the position. They have other priorities. Despite the freeze athletic coaching salaries increased and new coaching staff hired. Overall, the athletic budget in 2012 was increased by $4 million to facilitate increased salaries and scholarships.

Amidst the athletic budget increases, Native Studies (formally American Indian Studies) was granted departmental status. But the two faculty members of the department eventually left, leaving two unfilled positions. Since their departure, the department has been reduced to program status with nine “faculty affiliates.” Evacuating the Native Studies department’s institutional resources also required farming out teaching responsibility to other departments in Arts and Sciences.

This is where the finger pointing began.

In a June 2013 article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Provost Chuck Staben stated that USD administration allowed the department to move forward. It was, according to Staben, the proposed Native Studies departmental model that resulted in its failure. Apparently, a PhD in biochemistry qualifies Staben to make pedagogical critiques of Native Studies. If anything, Staben’s tenure as Provost since 2008 bears witness to the failure of USD to effectuate positive diversity initiatives. Now many students wanting to finish degrees in the Native Studies program have wasted tens of thousands of dollars on the promise of receiving a quality education.

So what is USD doing with diversity? And what is diversity doing for USD?

Go to any page on the USD Office of Diversity website and you will see brown faces and what looks like a vibrant and diverse student body. The webpage sells the university as being programmatically diverse, even listing Native Studies as an academic resource. Of the six academic offices and programs, three specifically target Native populations. Moreover, all three cultural centers on campus deal specifically with Native peoples.

USD student body demographics, however, tell a different story. According to the 2010 Census, Native people make up 8.5% of South Dakota’s population. Whites make up 84.7% of the population. The enrollment for 2013 counted 175 Native undergraduates and undergraduates, making Native students barely 2% of the 10,235 total student population. White students make up just over 85% of the population, accurately reflecting the overall state population. Ideally, if the Native student population reflected the state population, there would be about 870 Native students at USD. Even if the ideal population just reflected the in-state student population (6,768), there would still be 575 Native students, almost triple the current student body.

In a 2011 reaccreditation self-study, only 10 (almost 3%) of the 361 full-time faculty were Native. An accurate state representation would be 31 faculty. A further accurate representation of state populations would be that three USD senior administrators and one Board of Regent would be Native. As we know, this is not the case. But these numbers reveal the lack of diversity in the institutional hierarchy all the way up the chain.

USD is advertising the two faculty positions as such: “USD offers unique opportunities for interaction with tribal communities and for learning about indigenous history and life ways. Revitalization of the Native Studies major reflects USD’s commitment to inclusive excellence, and acknowledges its special responsibility to the tribal communities of South Dakota to value indigenous perspectives.”

Irony drips from these words. USD’s “special responsibility” to Native peoples is demonstrated in its failure beginning in 2001 to take seriously the Higher Learning Commission’s pressure to increase and further institutionalize diversity initiatives. In 2014 USD will receive another diversity progress report and the site team in charge warns that “USD cannot continue with the status quo.”

But, as demonstrated in the positions taken by Staben and other senior administrators, the status quo seems to be all USD knows. A healthy diversity initiative should be encouraged to critique institutional inequalities, not be a public relations initiative. Given the recent outrage about a Native family being mocked by white students and another instance of white student claiming he was “drunker than a 100 Indians,” anti-Indian racism and inequality at USD has to be addressed. Frequent finger pointing by USD officials is counter-productive and harmful towards students.

If USD is serious about addressing these institutional inequalities and Native Studies, it has yet to be proven administrators are anything but reactionary. It’s hard to speculate about whether USD wants a Native and diverse campus population. As an alumnus, I’m embarrassed that USD administrators continue to point fingers at Native Studies and Native students. Gutting institutional resources and departments demonstrates that USD doesn’t care, and, at best, thinks Native people are a problem that they don’t know how to fix.

As W. E. B. Dubois famously asked, “How does it feel to be a Problem?” As a student at USD, I often felt my presence was a problem. I can only imagine and empathize with students who are paying financially and emotionally for USD’s diversity follies. Changing these conditions is essential.

To the USD administrators, the past twelve years demonstrates little improvement of relations with Native communities. Maintaining the status quo is costing you students, faculty, and staff. As a public institution, USD deserves public scrutiny and attention about inequalities in student representation and lack of institutional support for diversity initiatives. A healthy institutional reform with new blood may be required, for the benefit of everyone. Failing to act is telling.

First Nations Sculpture Garden: Rapid City and the Politics of Stolen Ground

Perpetually frustrated for what passes as journalism in the Rapid City Journal (RCJ), I recently submitted a letter to the editor regarding the 17 March 2013 story titled “Spokeswoman: Native sculpture garden location is not up for debate.” Although I submitted my letter to the editor several days ago, I have received no response for the RCJ (nor any response for previously submitted letters to the editor). So, I will expand upon the 200 word essay I wrote. Original essay below.

The “spokeswoman” in the March 17 article about the proposed Native sculptor garden is preeminent Native scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn of many important works on Native issues, particularly for the Lakotayapi and the Dakotayapi. Many commenters have taken issue with Cook-Lynn’s statements about the park not being “a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders to learn about history” and also not considering another location for the park.

First, as evident with Canada’s recent #idlenomore movement, the burden of “proving” that the long history of federal treaties made with the U.S. nation-state have been violated and created the socioeconomic devastation and land dispossession for Natives has long since passed. Read any book on Native history and you will find the proof you need.

Second, if education is merely learning that history, then it has failed. Education is pointless if it maintains the status quo and does not challenge settler society to understand their role in perpetuating these continuing conditions.

So why should this park continue forward? Cook-Lynn makes the point: to tell settler society “who we are and who we’ve been.” Consider that a gift because, frankly, Natives do not owe settler society much more.

The “spokeswoman” of the story happens to be Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, preeminent Dakota scholar and writer from Crow Creek, SD. The RCJ overshadows Cook-Lynn’s lifelong achievements as a Native scholar with her insistence on the creating the park at the location that was historically Native trust land and the tagline: “It’s not a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders to learn about Native history.” Many commenters and critics of the park’s location called foul for the latter statement as divisive and reverse racism. Yet, these critics of Cook-Lynn’s statements fail to see the larger picture and concept of building a sculpture garden on this historically contested ground within a historically contested border town.

As I have thought over the definitions of a border town, I have come to the conclusion that border towns like Rapid City do not easily fit the common perception of how a border town functions and manifests itself. First of all, Rapid City or Mni Luzahan sits at the heart of the 95 million acres of treaty designated territory under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that was never legally ceded to the United States. Therefore, Mni Luzahan is not necessarily “near” a Native community, it is occupying space in the heart of Lakota Territory. Second, the Native population has historically been displaced within the city limits on several occasions, whether it was through forced removal as Cook-Lynn points out or through natural causes such as the 1972 Rapid City Flood.


Strangely, the Lakota do in fact retain some trust land benefits and recognition throughout the history of forced removal in the form of a section 8 housing district known as Lakota Homes in the North Rapid City (which has also become an historically large Native neighborhood). Nonetheless, Rapid City Natives remain dispossessed and disenfranchised. More than half of Rapid City’s Native population live in poverty, as well as 48% of  65,000 of South X‘s Native population living below the poverty threshold. This makes Rapid City the poorest city in the U.S. among other cities significantly populated with Natives, as well as South X leading the U.S. with five of the top ten poorest counties in the U.S.–all which are located on Native reservations.

This information dispels the myth of reservations being concentrations of poverty and opens up Rapid City for scrutiny, something Cook-Lynn stresses. The location of the proposed sculpture garden would serve “as a powerful symbol”, being on land Native Rapid City residents were forcefully removed from.

As a former resident of Rapid City and having actually lived two blocks from the location of the proposed sculpture garden, I find it ironic that there is question about the proposed location. The location itself is at Halley Park, which is situated like an island sandwiched between two major roads. The park consists only of few landscaping details, trees, and a trimmed lawn. Otherwise, it sits in a prominent downtown location without really being used for anything.

It seems, however, that the location, being unused city land and never formally ceded Indian trust land, would, indeed, be a symbolic location for the proposed sculpture garden. Also, the proposed busts of prominent Dakota and Lakota people includes Vine Deloria, Jr., Black Elk, Oscar Howe, and Charles Eastman. Four more busts have yet to be determined, but hopefully they will include Dakota women like Zitkala Sa.

Lastly, what Cook-Lynn has been criticized the most for her statement that the park would not function as a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders. Most commenters and critics feel that Cook-Lynn’s statements were threatening and racist towards little white children, yet they fail to see the irony in such statements after critics proposed moving the park’s location to Founder’s Park. Cook-Lynn’s statements, however, do reflect a criticism of how Native people and their history in Rapid City is up for grabs as something that should be made consumable for the masses, while never requiring Native history to hold or be told with its own dignity. Cook-Lynn’s criticism is that Native history cannot be held to the standard of mainstream settler society and that is palatable, sanitized, and made safe for the consumption of little children. That is not the point and puts an unfair burden on Native people to reconstruct and fit their history into narratives of equal rights and liberal multiculturalism, which given the gross disparities among Natives and settlers in Rapid City only further perpetuates Native dispossession and erasure. This proposed park, rightly so, upsets liberal settler colonial sensibilities. So don’t bring your children to a rated-R movie.

Cook-Lynn is a courageous Dakota Winyan who is made out to be an angry racist Indian woman, unwilling to budge or compromise. This characterization of female Native intellectuals is very condescending. Ask yourself how has the RCJ portrayed Native women in its news coverage? In this instance a highly honored and recognized Dakota intellectual is referred to as merely a “spokeswoman.” Does settler society have typecast parts for how Native women appear and are recognized with the public? In this instance, Cook-Lynn is portrayed as an angry woman of color who is against compromise and undermining the white liberal sensibilities of Rapid City residents. Yet, much more is at stake.

Indian Casino Cartels or Alcohol Cartels? Farmington, NM

See Article: Embezzlement shines light on gambling addiction

Often journalists are the first to write and record history. In what can be deemed as historic battlegrounds, border town journalists and the Farmington Daily Times write the histories that displace economic inequalities onto its victims. The recent article (linked above) by Ryan Boetel is no different.

In a description of Farmington, reminiscent of the Wild West “Circle the wagons! We’re surrounded by Indians!” trope, Boetel writes:

FARMINGTON — Northern Edge to the south.
Flowing Water to the west.
SunRay to the east.
Sky Ute to the north.
San Juan County residents are surrounded by casinos.

Surrounded! Surrounded by Indian casinos, that is.

The “news” story continues to link the encroachment of Indian casinos in San Juan County with the recent criminal indictment of a woman who embezzled $24,000 to support her gambling addiction, an addiction fed by the easy access to casinos.

Although only one casino (SunRay) is a non-Native venture, Boetel is quick to point out that it has lost over $1 million in tax revenue to the other three tribally-run casinos (two Navajo and one Southern Ute). Furthermore, the article is quick to claim that the recent construction of casinos in the last ten years is under review by the city council to determine if they have increased crime and poverty rates. Supposed local “business experts” claim there is a direct link.

So what does the moral turpitude of a border town’s gambling problem have to do with the colonial logics of violence? First of all, what is remarkable about the embezzlement case is that it reflects the white captive narratives of the Wild West. Melissa Mead, Farmington resident and indicted for the theft of $24,000, is held hostage by her gambling addiction and the loose morality and easy access to Indian casinos. Second, the feminine victim to Indian indecency must be rescued if the moral integrity of Farmington is to be saved. Sound familiar? Third, the article makes it appear as though the entire town is being held hostage by the loose morals of Indian gaming, like that of an invading force.

The real issue here is not gambling. It’s the troubling presence of Natives in Farmington that creates the unsavory morality that corrupts its white inhabitants. One needs only turn to the multitude of reports filed on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center and a 2011 briefing to the United States Commission on Civil Rights to discover Farmington’s violence towards Native people. Coupled with the over abundance of bars and liquor stores that specifically target a Native population, a much more sinister picture of the economy that keeps Farmington afloat comes to light.

No journalists from the Daily Times are rushing to interview the Native victims of abuse, violence, and homelessness caused by the unrestricted sale and profit of alcohol. But, nonetheless, if a white resident embezzles $24,000 to support a gambling addiction, Indians are to blame.

See also:

Border Towns: Colonial Logics of Violence

I should note that being my first post for this blog that I was born and raised (for the most part) in Chamberlain, SD, which fits the commonly understood notion of being a border town. Chamberlain is geographically located near two reservations–the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and my tribe the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

Photo taken at North Platte, NE on 16/12/2012
Photo taken at North Platte, NE on 12/16/2012

On my way back home from school in Albuquerque, NM, I drove through North Platte, NE. North Platte is an historic site that is positioned on the most southern border of treaty land designated as “Sioux Territory” by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. As I turned North onto Highway 83 from I-76, this is the site that welcomed by return to the treaty lands of my people, the Oceti Sakowin Oyate (Nation of the Seven Council Fires).

The image of an American military outpost with highwalls and armaments is metaphorical of the historic political and economic currency of border towns–Indians. As much as border towns have historically attempted to keep Natives out (like the high walls of the fort suggest), their political and economic livelihood is intrinsically dependent on Native people and land.

This prompted me to think about the concept of border towns. Native and non-Native people constantly refer to border towns, as if it is commonly understood term. But what exactly is a border town? How does it function?

Here are some broader definitions I came up with listed in no particular order:

  • Geographic location near an Indian reservation and/or community;
  • Dependent upon Native resources such as: land, cheap labor, water, mineral resources, and economies;
  • In some cases Native people are dependent upon border towns for basic needs such as: employment, food, education, access to health services, access to social services, and conducting business in general;
  • Disproportionate wealth and living conditions between non-Native and Native people living in or dependent on border towns;
  • Disproportionate criminal conviction rate of Native people when compared to non-Native people;
  • and, Disproportionate violence against Native women.

I researched scholarly definitions of border towns and Native people, but only found legal and civil/human rights commissions reports that deal with border town issues. So these definitions are solely mine as defined by my personal experience and research. Yet, given these broad definitions of border towns, border towns are not wholly unique to the Great Plains or the United States. These definitions parallel the relationship between First World and Third World nations.

Take for example, border towns on the border between Mexico and the United States. Why is there such a distinct, disproportionate level of violence and poverty on one side and not the other? Most people blame drugs as the sole motivating factor for the escalation of violence on the border. But, it begs the questions: who and what is fueling this demand for drugs? Why have we forgotten about NAFTA? Considering how critics of NAFTA determined the negative effects it would have on Mexico, criticism of NAFTA has been all but forgotten. Because sustained criticism of NAFTA has been abandoned does not mean U.S.’s continued exploitation and economic dependence on unfair market conditions is not a contributing factor to ongoing violence along the border. This relationship the First World has with Third World countries is a global phenomenon of capitalism. The same goes for border town communities in the U.S., except the exchange is different. The violence, however, is similar.

It seems, however, just like in the case of forgetting the devastating effects NAFTA would have on Mexico, the violence that accompanied the invasion of America by European colonizers is rendered as an historic occurance that has no bearing in the present. America sees itself as abandoning these past violences–morally moving beyond them. Using the distance of time to abandon and forget the violent past is a trick that does not interrogate the present disparities that exist in border towns, nor the violences they perpetuate.

The idea of borders are meant to create boundaries between people–physical spaces that are meant to keep out and keep in. They define who is deemed worthy and therefore included. Conversely, they define who is deemed unworthy and excluded. Internally, within the settlements around which borders are constructed, the morals and values constructed by those who are worthy are thus used to define those who belong. Those who are meant to be excluded and deemed unworthy decidedly do not constitute a valid existence when they transgress borders into communities that do not want them there.

Likewise, if we take into consideration the United States in the broader context of the history of colonialism, every settlement in America benefits from Native land dispossession. This dispossession was by no means peaceful. It was and is the primary motivating factor for the continuation of colonial violence in the present. Further study needs to take place that examines the logics behind border towns as an historic and contemporary phenomenon.

To be continued.