by Romalyn Schmaltz
This Facebook post by San Francisco artist and writer Romalyn Schmaltz is reprinted by permission. Respectful sharing is welcome.
I grew up among the Sioux.***
The largest city in South Dakota is called Sioux Falls. In its second-largest town, my hometown of Rapid City, we have Sioux Park, the Sioux Sanatorium hospital, and countless other appropriations of the name that originated as an insult (see footnote below). Even the great life-sized concrete apatosaurus that overlooks the western slice of the city is nicknamed Siouxsie.
I write this having just learned, with very cautious enthusiasm, that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the easement that the Dakota Access Pipeline expected to be granted tomorrow against the will of the Standing Rock water protectors there. It would appear that the human shield created this weekend by thousands of veterans may have played a critical political role in this decision. While I’m grateful for this news, and want badly to cry in joy, I can’t do that just yet, because the United States government is infamous for its retreat from its treaties with the great First Nations. I grew up with more examples of this plain fact than I could possibly recount. Every day of the 18 years I spent in western South Dakota were reminders that the U.S. government—and even more so the South Dakota state government—views Native Americans and their traditions as antique and marketable to tourists at best (get your dreamcatcher at the roadside Shell station!), and as funny, backward, and an impediment to progress at worst.
A few days ago, a friend told me he’d heard that white North and South Dakotans largely resented Native Americans, and that a certain air of schadenfreude was coming out of Bismarck and beyond—a kind of hope that the A.C.E. would hand them their asses, and that the militarized and largely illegal mercenary police forces would begin to mow them down on December 5th, as Dakota Access projected. That the North Dakota white man couldn’t wait to see the red woman’s ass handed to her in a Hollywood-worthy showdown. He asked whether I, as a white born-and-raised South Dakotan, could verify that claim.
I grew up in a subdivision of a tiny town about seven miles northwest of Rapid City called Black Hawk. It was largely a trailer park community, with tracts of housing nestled higher up in the hills where my parents bought a house in 1978. Tourism was the keystone industry there, and still is, mostly due to one thing: Mount Rushmore.
The “Shrine of Democracy,” as it’s often called by tourism boards and chambers of commerce, was a sacred Native mountain known in Lakota as “The Six Grandfathers.” Its designer (some say ‘sculptor,’ but ‘designer’ is a better word, since hundreds of men were paid very little—some dying—to actually ‘sculpt’ the mountain), Gutzon Borglum, was a member of the KKK.† Despite outcry from the Native community who by the 1920s had already been persecuted and devastated by imperialists for hundreds of years, Borglum emblazoned the sacred mountain with white men: a couple of slave owners (Washington and Jefferson) and a flamboyant war monger (Roosevelt) among them. Gold having dried up and farmers struggling in the economic wasteland of the 1970s and 80s, this unimaginable eyesore was the lifeline for the economy I grew up in. Most of the people I knew were supported, however indirectly, by the tourism created not by the sylvan beauty the Black Hills is known for, but by the ultimate and permanent homage to Manifest Destiny as imagined by a white supremacist in a county named after Mr. Manifest Destiny Incarnate, genocidal maniac General George Armstrong Custer. To many of us white Dakotans of conscience, you may as well name a territory ‘Hitler County.’
The first memory I have of noticing local treatment of the Natives came about, of course, at school. I was fortunate to come from a family that treated all people equally, so I didn’t understand the concept of race until I began the process of institutionalization, and my introduction came on September 7, 1981—my first day of Catholic school. By the end of that first day of kindergarten, I noticed that one of the boys in my class was being ignored by most of the others. Recalling my mom’s instructions not to bother with the people who already had a lot of friends in favor of those who seemed lonely, I went over, introduced myself, and asked him why he wasn’t playing with the others. He told me it was because he was an Indian.
I can safely say that in the ensuing thirteen years, not a day passed where I didn’t see at least one example of anti-Native rhetoric—be it perpetrated by the white folk or internalized by the Native herself, as was the case with my classmate. Mostly, they were encouraged to stick together, and the segregation was really visible. Moving into junior high and high school, well-meaning teachers (and not all of them were well-meaning) were helpless to silence the epithets and threats foisted upon Natives by whites. I recall cringing as end-of-day announcements were read over the loudspeaker asking students to come down to the office for messages before leaving (long before parents could contact their kids directly via cell phones). Every time a Native’s name was read in translation, giggling and even outbursts of laughter rose out of many classrooms. Lori Afraid of Lightning and Harold Dismounts Thrice didn’t stand a chance against the Johannsens and Knutsons and Grundstroms.
For Pete’s sake, my high schools mascot was The Stevens High School Raiders. A wild-eyed white gizzard in a ten-gallon cowboy hat is mounted on what appears to be a rabid donkey, sword in hand and charging an enemy I find it all too easy to picture. A friend of mine from back then recently commented that with a mascot like that, it’s a wonder they didn’t hand out ‘free smallpox stadium blankets’ at football games.
The term ‘drunk Indian’ was synonymous with the homeless and downtrodden souls who congregated around parks and ravines on the city’s poorer north and eastern sides. I recall, in the 8th grade, my English teacher having to rebuke a student for calling a rusted-out Fiero a ‘Pine Ridge Porsche.’ Pine Ridge is the reservation nearest Rapid City, and with a poverty rate of at least 50%, is often cited as the poorest county in the nation. Very few white Rapid Citizens have ever even been on a reservation, where alcoholism has been institutionalized by the United States government as the easiest means of controlling them. To many of the white folk I knew, people from ‘The Rez’ were pariahs not just to be ignored, but to be ridiculed. This was not just adolescent sport—the racist kids I grew up with all derived their world views from their racist parents, and it was quietly encouraged by our very conservative, very white, very culturally isolated social order, and from what I’ve seen on visits back, it still is to some extent very much business as usual.
North Dakota governor hack Jack Dalrymple has shown zero empathy for the historically unprecedented gathering of these tribes. Not only did he order them to evacuate the camps last week, he authorized such use of force that resulted in dog attacks, rubber bullet arsenals leading to what might be the loss of one activist’s arm, and the spraying of the crowds in freezing temperatures with water cannons, causing dozens of hypothermia cases. He has also shown complete disregard for the First Amendment (but in unsurprising cherry-picking, is an avid defender of the Second). Like almost all of North and South Dakota’s heads of state, he is pro-business and disinterested in ecological realities, to say nothing of honoring treaties. Like many of the kids I grew up with, his actions announce that he does not see Native Americans as Americans, nor as North Dakotans, nor as fully human. They are vermin in the way, the law be damned. And when I heard that the same white Bismarck residents who refused to allow the pipeline to pass by Bismarck were demonstrating in support of the illegal militia attacking the protectors at Standing Rock, I realized that these are probably those racist kids like I grew up with, middle-aged now and filled with fear that a Native win at Standing Rock and in Cannonball will snowball into more Native wins, and they can’t have that. They can’t have the ‘injuns’ taking back what’s theirs. I’ll bet this was the first time most of those hypocritical pieces of shit ever demonstrated for anything in their lives, and it was to foist upon Native ground what they refused to allow on their own (stolen) property.
So my answer is yes—as someone who grew up with white people in the region of the great Lakota nation, I fully believe that racism remains rampant in the Heartland, and that the resentment will continue to build with each Native victory, however bloodily won. I believe, moreover, that this hatred will become far worse as Trump ascends to the presidency he did not win, and I expect to see atrocities never yet fully articulated in my time as a South Dakotan. So it is with a very cautious enthusiasm that I share the news that the A.C.E. has declared that the Dakota Access Pipeline will not cross the Missouri River. Our nation’s only precedent in these matters is of deceit and revocation, and until it proves me otherwise, it can never even aspire to be healed, let alone be ‘great.’
I grew up among the Sioux. It wasn’t even until I left South Dakota to go to college that I learned that this was not their name. And I look forward to learning about—and fighting for—their great nation as much as I can. Mitakuye Oyasin.
*** “Sioux” comes from two words.”Nadowessi” from the Chippewa and “Oux” from the French [combined into] “Nadowessioux.” Sioux has no meaning in either the Chippewa or French language. [It] does not come from the Lakota, Dakota or Nakota. Oglala Lakota Oyate is a proper name, not Oglala Sioux Tribe. Tatanka Oyate (Buffalo Nation) or Oceti Sakowin (Seven council fires) is our proper name not Sioux Nation. http://www.lakotacountrytimes.com/…/2009-03-…/guest/021.html