Friday, April 07, 2006
CONFERENCE TACKLES RACISM IN RESERVATION BORDER TOWNS
American Indians face racism every day. Towns that border reservations (left) can be some of the worst bastions of anti-Indian bigotry.
Reporter Jodi Rave recently wrote , "Hundreds of border towns surround the 300 reservations in the United States. These towns wouldn't survive without the millions of dollars pumped into the economy from nearby tribal governments and reservation residents. Tension often runs high between Indians and non-Indians in these areas."
Rave cites the town of Winner which is just east of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation as typical of such border towns.
"The treatment received by Native American students in Winner and throughout the region is completely different than that of their white counterparts," said Jennifer Ring, executive director of ACLU of the Dakotas.
"These experiences demonstrate the reasons why Native American children so often fail to reach graduation -- hostility of peers, discrimination of school officials and knee-jerk police involvement."
In these towns Indians of all ages are treated like second-class citizens. They get shabby service at restaurants. They get followed around stores. They get arrested more often. They get kicked out of school more often.
The following article was printed in the Missoulian. The second article is from Montana Kaimin On Line.
Conference explores racism in cities near reservations
By MICHAEL MOORE of the Missoulian
It's an equation that makes sense only in a perverse sort of way: The more Indians exercise their sovereignty and civil rights, the more racist backlash they receive.
And nowhere is that more true than in the so-called border towns that lie on the outskirts of America's Indian reservations. Towns like Rapid City, S.D., and Farmington, N.M. Towns like Missoula, Billings and Great Falls.
“When you exercise your rights, that's when you're most often subject to backlash,” Stephen Pevar, a national staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Wednesday at a Missoula conference put on by the Blackfeet nation.
Even worse, Indians who live in those border towns often suffer from what one speaker called “abused community syndrome.”
“If you live in Yuma, Arizona, for instance, you don't expect to have the same rights that people have elsewhere,” said John Dulles, regional director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Denver.
And once that expectation takes hold - that you are a second-class citizen - it starts to become true, Dulles said.
“You expect to be hassled, and you are,” he said.
The civil rights conference, which runs through Friday, is the first of its kind in Montana and looks to illuminate the problems of border-town racism and find solutions. One of the conference's organizers, Rodney Gervais, called it “a new beginning for Indians.” And keynote speaker Iris Pretty Paint, who works in research and development at the University of Montana, said the job of fighting racism is “work that will never be done.”
Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger attended the conference early Wednesday and told conference attendees that “there is a place at our table for you.”
Racism, Bohlinger said, “is a crime against all of us, and we should all be offended.”
Though many see racism in its most obvious incarnations - offensive comments, violence, isolation - it exists in more subtle and sometimes more powerful forms. For instance, said Ray Cross, a professor at the University of Montana School of Law, consider the current discussion of limiting the rights of Indians to lobby Congress on gambling issues.
That's a direct response to the Jack Abramoff scandal that has targeted the misdeeds of lobbyists and members of Congress, but now also threatens Indians' very right of petitioning the government, Cross said.
Indians, Cross said, might be seen as the canary in the coal mine of civil rights. If Indians' rights, treaty agreements and overall aspirations are seen as too burdensome, “they will be the first to be shed.” Protecting those rights will require constant vigilance, Cross said.
But he also urged a more powerful sense of independence for Indians, a return to the power tribes held before they found themselves disenfranchised by the federal government. He urged Indians to exercise their political, economic and social freedoms by being true to their cultures, by being educated, by being politically active.
Dulles picked up the economic theme, talking about the power Indians can wield in border towns that happily take their money yet still mistreat them. He said, for instance, that 93 cents of every dollar spent by residents of the Navajo reservation is spent off the reservation. What if the Navajo used that economic power to reconfigure the balance of power in those towns? Dulles said.
“What you find in the border communities is an inequality in the balance of power,” Dulles said. “Indians don't feel important in those towns.”
But they could be, if they wielded their economic and political power, he said. A boycott of stores in border towns might be effective, Dulles said, because Americans understand the power of the pocketbook.
Dulles said reservations should have a place where residents can leave reports about their interactions with businesses and other organizations off the reservation. Then, on a regular basis, tribes could report on the issues their residents face when they leave the reservation, Dulles said.
Although Dulles said racism is still a huge problem in border towns, he finds a sense of hope in changes he has seen in some of those towns. Farmington, N.M., suffered a major tragedy when three Navajo were beaten to death by white high school students in 1974. Faced with the magnitude of what happened, Farmington set itself on the slow road to better relations between the town and the reservation.
“I think towns that have had to confront these problems directly have found reason to change,” he said.
In fact, most of Wednesday's speakers found reason for hope.
“I really believe that you're onto something here,” Dulles said.
Said Pretty Paint: “That hope, that optimism, is here. I can feel it.”
The conference continues on Thursday and Friday at the Holiday Inn Parkside.
Missoula conference to address racism
Contributed by Zachary Franz/Montana Kaimin
It’s an ugly idea, and something we’d like to think doesn’t exist in Montana. Or, at least, not in the liberal, cosmopolitan bastion that is Missoula.
But American Indians face racism every day, especially in towns near the state’s seven reservations, said Rodney Gervais, who lives on the Blackfoot Reservation in northwest Montana. And Missoula — 25 miles south of the Flathead Reservation — falls into that category.
Gervais is the chairman of a conference addressing that very issue. That conference, “Border Town Racism: Bringing Civil Rights to Indian Country,” begins today and continues through Friday. It includes a full slate of lectures and presentations by prominent Indians and civil rights experts, and will be held in Missoula’s Holiday Inn Parkside.
Discrimination Gervais experience in Cut Bank spurred him to plan the conference, he said. After being pulled over by non-native officers in that town, his car was confiscated and towed away because the officers did not believe it was properly registered, Gervais said. He eventually filed and won a lawsuit based on the incident, but a bitter taste remained in his mouth.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was until I was the victim of discrimination,” he said.
Gervais went to college in Missoula, and enjoyed his time here.
“Missoula was a model for the rest of the state,” he said.
Though he still considers Missoula a relatively tolerant community, he said there is some concern in the American Indian community that things are getting worse, especially among law enforcement.
“Some racial profiling has come to our attention,” he said.
Specifically, Gervais pointed to the case of Wilbert Fish. Fish, a Blackfoot Indian, was charged with rape after an officer reported seeing him sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at a Missoula nightclub. Fish was later exonerated, partially because of what Gervais considered overwhelming video evidence demonstrating Fish’s innocence.
“His rights were clearly violated,” Gervais said. “We’re standing back and looking at (the case) real close.”
Fish’s father, Wilber Fish Sr., agrees. He believes his son was targeted at Club Cabo because he was the only American Indian there. Because of the perceived injustice, Fish Sr. has planned a protest march in conjunction with the conference.
Though difficult to quantify, racism is alive and well even in Missoula, said Kathryn Shanley, University of Montana Native American Studies chair and an Assiniboine Indian.
“The kind of discrimination that occurs in those towns around reservations is probably worse than anywhere else,” she said. “And Missoula is a border town.”
Shanley’s own experience with racism has been close to home.
“My son is a student at Hellgate High, and he tells me about the fights he sees and the things people say to him,” she said.
Furthermore, American Indians who face criminal charges are more likely to be convicted, receive longer sentences, and serve more of their sentences, she said.
“They tend to be guilty until proven innocent,” Shanley said.
Such institutional racism is difficult to prove, but it does appear to exist, said Maylinn Smith, director of the Indian Law Clinic at UM.
“That would be my assessment, but statistics are hard to come by,” she said.
Though racism may exist in Missoula, Loren Lewis, who hails from the Fort Belknap Reservation, is happy the conference is here.
“I love Missoula,” he said. “It’s liberal. It’s cool.”