I moved to Rapid City, South Dakota in ’97. I drove into town in the middle of a sleet storm (anyone who’s ever driven through a storm on the Great Plains knows what that’s like…there’s nowhere to hide.) Yeah, I knew about Rapid. In the 60s and 70s, Indians knew this place as the most racist city in America. It’s where two cowboys stabbed Wesley Bad Heart Bull through the chest, locked him in the trunk of their car where he died, and were charged with involuntary manslaughter. It’s where Lizzy Fast Horse, a great grandmother, climbed to the top of Mt. Rushmore to claim the Black Hills back for the Lakota people, and then was hauled back down to jail, cuffed to her granddaughter. “But that was back then,” I thought to myself. Besides, this is where Bear Butte is, and that’s why I came, as do so many other Cheyenne from Oklahoma every summer. So, my second night there I ventured out to one of the local bars. I had no furniture or TV, and I wanted to watch the football game. After pouring my drink, the bartender strode down the bar to the group of about 4 or 5 regulars and said, “Hey, what do you call a bus full of Indians?…a full set of teeth.” They laughed and shot a couple of awkward glances my direction. I got the hint…welcome to Rapid.
While getting certified to teach high school history, I worked as a teacher’s aid at the local high school and at a store called Prairie Edge. It’s the largest Native American book, music, and craft store in the world, and I made a lot of good Lakota friends there. When you work at a place like that, you see a lot of strange things. One day, a group of guys from Norway came in wearing all fur. They asked to talk to a full blood and were directed up to the book & music department, where I worked, to talk to my boss, Marty Frog. As they came up the stairs, everyone…Indians and non-Indians…workers and customers…stood silent, watching. The Norwegians reverently approached Marty, got on their knees, and asked his forgiveness on behalf of their ancestors, who stole his land. Marty said, uncomfortably, “Sure, OK.” And just like that they left, as quickly and quietly as they had come. Another time, I sat and watched as a German tourist, who spoke fluent Lakota, actually argued with a lady from Pine Ridge Reservation about the correct way to say something in her language. Those are just a small sample of the funnier moments, but I was young, struggling with my own mixed-blood identity, and my first reaction was always anger. After four years of living and working in Rapid, I’d seen and heard about everything.
Then, starting in the fall of 1998 we were all reminded that Rapid City could be a lot darker than the funny tourist stories we’d collected. In the span of 18 months, there was a dramatic increase in violence and murders of Indians around Rapid City and in other parts of South Dakota. Two young men were found on Pine Ridge, near the Nebraska border. Their arms had been tied behind them, and they had both been shot dead. Rumors circulated that it was a Nebraska sheriff, but charges were never filed, and the investigation finally ended with no leads. Then, in another SD town, a teenage Lakota boy with Downs Syndrome was forced by a group of white teens to drink until he passed out. When they couldn’t wake him up, they shoved him upside down in a garbage can in an alley until morning, where he died. The court ruled that since he died of alcohol poisoning and not being upside down in the can, he couldn’t charge the defendants with murder. Their parents and other community members actually asked the court to go easy on them, since several of them had already been accepted to college. But the eeriest events took place in Rapid City. Within 18 months, eight homeless Indians had mysteriously “drowned” in the shallow creek that runs through the city. Investigations had turned up nothing, and when law enforcement was going to chalk the eighth one up to a drunken accident, the people went crazy. Not because there were no leads, but because it didn’t seem the investigators were even looking for them. Homeless Indians didn’t suddenly get drunker, and the river certainly didn’t suddenly get deeper and more dangerous. But the police were ready to simply assume that these people must have just passed out and rolled into the river.
The protests got so loud, that Washington finally sent a Civil Rights Commission to Rapid in December 1999. Most people I talked to thought it was just a token gesture. They and their ancestors have been through centuries of this, someone shows up and records the complaints and brings them back to Washington, never to be heard from again. The files of complaints must be huge, or at least the bonfires were when they burned them. But it didn’t stop half the Indians in SD from showing up to tell their stories to the commissioners. It went on for several days, and I was able to go and listen on one of them. As I stated before, I was younger then (27), and anger was my best motivator. The more personal testimonies that were told and the more denials and justifications by state and county officials I heard, the angrier I got. I turned to Heidi, my girlfriend at the time and now my wife, and said, “I think I have to say something.” I remember this vividly; she looked at me with the same frustration and hurt I was feeling and said, “I know.” Her faith in me has always inspired me to try anything. So, I prepared some notes on a few napkins and placed my name on the list of speakers. After a long wait, almost long enough to calm down and loose my nerve, they called my name. I tried not to notice everyone turning to look at who was next, as I walked down the isle and sat at the table facing the panel, which included Mary Frances Berry, a woman whose achievements and career I had read about. Currently the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the U. of Pennsylvania, she had worked on civil rights issues under three presidents and was fired by Reagan when she had the nerve to criticize his record on civil rights…and I was about to address her, what arrogance. Nervously I adjusted the mike, looked quickly at my notes, and began.
I spoke for about three minutes, which is all we were allowed, and I swear I couldn’t have told anyone what I had just said; it went so fast. All I really remember is Commissioner Berry smiling at me when I was done, like a mother would, and saying, “Very well done.” But was it? Would it really achieve anything? But as I walked out with Heidi, one old Indian man, a stranger, reached out and shook my hand and nodded without saying a word. That was one of my proudest days.
Several months later, I got a letter from the Civil Rights Commission. It was a transcript of what I had said that day. It took me a while to open it, but with a little prodding from Heidi, I sat down and read it:
CHAIRPERSON FEINSTEIN: Thank you. Next Scott
Herron, state your name and where you're from for the record,
MR. HERRON: My name is Scott Herron. I am not
originally from here. My mother is Southern Cheyenne, we are
from Kansas, but I have lived here the past three years where
I spent most of my time in the school system as a teacher's
aide. I would like to start off by apologizing. I feel like
I am probably too young to be up here voicing my opinion, but
I had some things to say and I wouldn't have felt good about
myself if I didn't say them, so I apologize for my boldness.
I have heard a lot of good things said here
tonight, but two things especially stand out in my mind. I
heard Mr. Abourezk say, "Responsibility lies with everyone,
the rich and the poor." And I heard Scott Germane say that,
"The road to truth is a lonely one." I think it is lonely
because it's difficult, but most importantly, it's lonely
because it takes courage. I read an old speech once where
the speaker said, "English is a funny language. It can make
right look like wrong and wrong look like right." So I guess
it shouldn't surprise us that maybe we live in the only
country that a people could take over the entire continent
and somehow never have done anything wrong. And maybe it
shouldn't surprise me that in a state with a room full of
people with so many stories like this that I heard an
attorney sit up here today and tell you there was no
discrimination in the court system.
I am afraid that when we focus so closely on the
details of each case, it's like missing the forest for the
trees. I am glad to hear people talking about the past
tonight. There are a lot of people in this country who would
like to forget the past and they would wish Indian people
would do so also. Everyone in this room and everyone in this
country knows there's inequality, but let's face the truth,
most people are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to
As an example, some friends of mine and I got
together a drum group when I was here in Central High School
and we did so because we were worried about what we saw in
the school system, the closing of several Lakota
classes including the Lakota history -- Lakota language
class. We encountered a lot of barriers, and I remember
finally a couple students asked if we could sing at the
graduation and they wanted to do so to show the people what
they had learned and to show their pride and to show honoring
to those graduates. And they approached me for it and I went
to one faculty member I won't mention, and he told me, “no.” And
he explained that if the Native students wanted to do
something, then the black students would want to do something
and the Asian students would want to do something. I wonder
where we've gone in this country when that's a bad thing.
I have learned one thing in this life, that if you
are walking along and drop something, you can't pick it up if
you keep moving forward. We have dropped something special
in this country that's very important, but no one seems
willing to stop, back up and pick it up. You don't take
everything from a people and then ask with seriousness why
they or their descendents have alcoholism problems, why they
have the highest suicide rate, why they are distrusting and
why they are angry.
So in summary you ask what the solutions are here
tonight. I think all of us know what the solutions are. We
have to have the courage to say it. It's going to take
self-sacrifice from the top to the bottom, and so I wanted to
thank you for the sacrifice of your time and energy to come
here. Thank you.
CHAIRPERSON FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Scott.CHAIRPERSON BERRY: Very well done.