High hopes for ‘year of unity’

Vanessa Marcano

Vanessa Marcano

Twenty years ago, former Gov. George Mickelson declared a Year of Reconciliation as a means of honoring the 100th anniversary of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and as a step toward improvement of racial relations.

Though many reconciliation councils sprang up across the state and efforts for dialogue escalated, the momentum for the movement fell away at the time.

On Feb. 19, Gov. Mike Rounds proclaimed 2010 as the Year of Unity, as an effort to rekindle the reconciliation movement and start moving toward overcoming common obstacles in South Dakota communities.

“I call upon South Dakotans of all cultures and races to promote racial and cultural education and understanding ? and strengthening our ties and lines of respectful and productive communication can help bring further unity among all South Dakotans,” Rounds said.

While the proclamation has gotten mixed reviews, many at SDSU see the Year of Unity as an important opportunity to explore issues of race and reconciliation in a state where 8.4 percent of the population is Native American.

“Things are improving. Race relations are a lot better than since the 1970s,” said Valerian Three Irons, Diversity and Service-Learning Associate and Program Director for the Lakota Nation Service-Learning Program. “However, there is still a long way to go.”

Though he was not very familiar with the proclamation of Unity Day, Three Irons – also an American Indian studies professor – said he believed this effort should be good for South Dakota.

“To have unity is to embrace diversity,” he said. “You’re never going to embrace it until you understand the other. We must take away the myths and the stereotypes.”

In his view, there is more that could be done, especially in matters of communication and people making the effort to do it. Three Irons, a member of the Mandan nation, said that while the past SDSU History and Culture Conference was a positive way to learn about “our neighbors’ culture,” he wondered how many students went because they truly wanted to.

“Many go because of classes, but how many go on their own? Very few,” he said.

Three Irons emphasized that the only way to make things change for the better was through respecting others’ right to exist.

“When you respect another race of people, you don’t reduce them to negative stereotypes, such as mascots in a sports team. No, you treat them as human beings, and then you can address real issues such as poverty and healthcare,” he stated, adding that he was proud that SDSU did not engage in using Native peoples as mascots, whereas other schools in the state still do.

“Simple awareness of these issues improves race relations,” said Three Irons.

Greg Cournoyer, a parks and recreation major from the Yankton Sioux Reservation, said that unfortunately, he has experienced instances of racism during his time at SDSU.

During an English class, Cournoyer heard a derogatory comment from one of his classmates referring to a stereotype involving tobacco sales at reservations.

“Sometimes you hear those types of comments like it’s nothing,” he said.

Yet, he acknowledged that afterwards, his professor stood up for him, arranged for both students to talk and Cournoyer received an apology for the comment.

“(The tension) is there, but for the most part, people are ethical and professional, though from time to time, racism can surface,” Cournoyer said. “I try not to be too biased ? but reservation life in South Dakota is tough.”

Junior wildlife and fisheries major Tonna Hartman said she thought race relations in S.D. were strange.

“We have a lot of Native reservations, but the people around them always have negative things to say regarding those communities,” Hartman said. “I believe it’s our fault that they are in a bad situation; back in history, we took their land and ruined sacred places.”

Delmer Lonowski, professor of political science, said he does not think Native Americans are proportionately represented at SDSU.

“Most white South Dakotans don’t know or understand the relations of Native Americans to the large of society, and whatever they do understand is mostly quite negative,” he said. “There is tension, but it seems to be based on misunderstanding more than anything else.”

Even the Political Science Club weighed into the discussion of Native American relations, as the topic made its way into their meeting on Feb. 18. The group of students discussed issues of territory, as well as the legal possibilities and the implications of sovereignty in Native communities.

“I don’t think many South Dakotans consider Native Americans as regular Americans,” said Hassan Ali, a freshman political science major.

Native American Club adviser and member of the Choctaw nation, Ron McKinney said when different cultures are physically closer, the sense of animosity grows.

“It goes both ways, I’ve noticed. Many stereotypes are generated from individual incidents,” McKinney said.

McKinney, also a member of the Brookings Reconciliation Council, said there are “pockets” of individuals working for better race relations across the state and days like Unity Day are important to revisit the Year of Reconciliation, see what has happened and continue improving relations.

“Education has helped a lot, for example in an institution like SDSU, for Natives to be seen and known as people, that helps,” he said.

However, McKinney mentioned the fact that there have been Native American students in the dorms who have experienced racism.

“They’ve gotten notes under their doors saying ‘We’re going to run you out of here.’ ? As few Native students as we have, you can be in a dorm of 300 and be the only one out there. If you start feeling that animosity, you may wonder, why stay here?” said McKinney.

As part of expanding and diversifying facilities on campus, McKinney said that it would be a good idea for the university to take a look at all the various ethnic groups on campus and to include their cultural inputs when they build new structures.

“If you look at the architecture, there’s no indication that this school is built on Indian land; it’s like we’re hidden away,” said McKinney. “The mainstream thought is to go forward and then think about taking something here and there from each culture. Being more of the mainstream thought rather than the afterthought would be helpful.”

Nels Granholm, coordinator of the Global Studies program in the College of Arts and Sciences, said that he believes race relations have improved, but that the advance has been “minuscule” when looking at the scope of the issue.

“Gov. Mickelson did a wonderful job in trying to incorporate Native thinking into his government. ? We need to work hard in trying to get that kind of representation. ? I’m not sure we’ve done a lot in that area,” Granholm said.

As a member of the Brookings Reconciliation Council, Granholm expressed the need for the community to get together and communicate in new ways.

“Maybe we need to work on some projects together, where delegations of Natives and whites come together to solve issues of healthcare, poverty or even roads,” Granholm said.

Granholm said that there are several people at SDSU, such as Tim Nichols at the Honors College, Mary Jo Lee at the College of Engineering and Three Irons, who are working to provide a forum for Native American people on campus. President David Chicoine pledged support for a Native American facility on campus dedicated to Native American students, Granholm said.

“We really need to learn about Native American values and culture because they may help us in terms of energy, resource depletion. ? They have sound approaches to those problems,” Granholm said.

Annie Zirbel, a senior global studies and Spanish major, did not have a positive view of race relations in South Dakota today.

“It’s so ridiculously broken,” Zirbel said. “It’s like they are two separate identities that don’t coexist unless forced to.”

Zirbel said she thinks every treaty that has been made with Native American nations has been somehow abused, and now as a result, there is no longer any trust or honor in the treaties.

“I just don’t think we care,” she said. “We assume an attitude of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.”

Learning from each other, being honest and open to move forward are a few things Zirbel believes are necessary for reconciliation, yet she still expressed concern at the state of affairs today.

“We’re not dealing with the root of the issue. We need to humble ourselves and (Native Americans) need to be willing to forgive us and meet us where we are,” she said.

The Community News Service contributed to this report.