On Jan. 24 of this year, 57 elementary and middle school students from American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota traveled more than 100 miles to Rapid City, S.D., to watch a minor-league hockey game at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. You can imagine the excitement these students felt when they learned they would attend the big game in celebration of their academic success and outstanding school attendance. Though only a sports match, this night would signify months of hard work and commitment in the classroom and motivate each student to continue to reach his or her full potential.
The excitement was short-lived, as a result of an incident that subsequently received a fair amount of local and national press. Toward the end of the game, the students and their chaperones, who included teachers and parents, were verbally harassed and bullied—their ears fouled with racial slurs and their clothes wet with beer thrown on them from the VIP box above. With no security in sight and fearing for their safety, the school chaperones gathered the students and left the arena. Within an instant, their dream day became a nightmare. The badge of recognition they cherished was tarnished by negativity. The experience perpetuated their mistrust and destroyed the pride and excitement they had felt just a few hours earlier.
I was appalled, hurt, and angry as I saw the personal accounts of the field trip come through on social media that evening. To confirm the details of the incident, I immediately reached out to the school, tribal community, and families as both a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Tribe of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the director of Teach For America’s Native Alliance Initiative.
Native people aren’t alone in being victims of racial slurs. Many people suffer the perils of racism and bigotry. But when an incident or invective directly targets kids, it has deeper implications. It can impact their development, the way they view the world, and their own understanding of diversity and equality.
I attended meetings with parents, tribal council members, representatives from the civic center where the incident occurred, local law enforcement, and the mayor of Rapid City. This incident merged the lines of my professional and personal life. My niece was one of the students who were subjected to this inexcusable behavior. Several Teach For America teachers work at American Horse School. Some had attended the game.
Personally, as a community member and an uncle, I knew I had to help the students, teachers, and families who were affected. Professionally, my colleagues and I are deeply invested in supporting the students and the community, and committed to raising awareness not only of this incident, but also of the whole issue of racial bias against Native people. And in my roles at TFA and the National Indian Education Association, I have witnessed how both organizations have done just that. In this instance, they helped facilitate discussions around injustice and racism through community meetings with students, parents, tribal leaders, and Rapid City officials. They increased awareness of the incident through social media and blog posts, and letters of support to our students who attended the hockey game. Collectively, we have endeavored to elevate the voices of the young people who left the game in tears as they struggled to understand what they had done wrong.
In partnership, parents, educators, and community members from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation helped provide an outlet for the affected students to process and discuss their experience, in the hope that it wouldn’t have a long-term impact on their self-esteem and determination to succeed in the classroom. Their peers from other schools in the state also extended their support at American Horse through meetings and words of hope. Students and community members developed opportunities to discuss the impact of the incident at forums and during peaceful protests. The American Horse School board filed complaints with the Rapid City police and the Pennington County state’s attorney. One man was charged with disorderly conduct and faces a hearing later this month and a trial in June, according to the Rapid City’s attorney’s office. School leaders also reached out to federal authorities to investigate the incident as a hate crime.
When I reflect on what these students endured, I revert to thoughts of racism and prejudice that cloud my childhood memories. My grandparents and parents often recounted the cruelty, oppression, and forced assimilation they experienced growing up in South Dakota, from my grandfather being forced off his land on the reservation during World War II, to my mother being told not to sit at the counter of a coffee shop in Rapid City.
Unfortunately, my experiences as a young person weren’t much different. We moved from Pine Ridgeto a small town outside Rapid City where we were the only American Indian family for many years. Names like “squaws,” “tipi creepers,” and “dirty Indian” drowned out positive affirmations and words of hope. My older brothers and sisters were bullied and picked on every day—hit with rocks and sticks as they walked home, and chased and roped by neighbors on horseback.
We grew up fighting against bigotry and injustice in our homeland. We were told to “go back to the reservation,” just as the children of American Horse School allegedly were. We were unwelcome guests on the very land our ancestors hold sacred.
As a child, I felt alone and embarrassed. I would come home crying from hurt and anger. But my mom would never allow me to turn my back on who I was and where I came from. Instead, she challenged my siblings and me to rise beyond the perils of hate and use our education to help combat these wrongs. But the frightening reality remains that the tears of pain and anguish I once cried still run down the faces of Native American students today.
My heart aches. My soul cries. And the tears from my childhood run deep. I used to believe that time could heal the deepest wound. But the wounds of oppression and hatred have yet to heal. The same pain of racial dominance and harassment my grandparents and parents experienced was present for those children in that arena.
Investigations and apologies aren’t enough to heal these wounds. Racism and oppression have remained invisible for far too long. With more than 5,000 people in attendance at the civic center, these students and their chaperones alone were forced to endure humiliation and shame.
The torment these students faced must serve as a call to action beyond the city limits of Rapid City. Everyone in this nation and throughout the world can use media, social networks, and technology to raise awareness and bring incidents of racism to the forefront of America’s consciousness. We must ensure that all kids feel respected and affirmed in this country, and are taught to embrace diversity and tolerance so history will no longer be repeated. It’s not just an American Horse School issue, it’s an American issue.
The future of our Native American communities, and our country, depends on our resolve.
A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2015 edition of Education Week as Healing the Wounds of Racism, Old and New