ACLU Fights Native American Discrimination
Elsworth and Brandy Goes Ahead, of the Crow Nation, patiently waited outside of the Reed Point High School gym with another couple and their 10-year-old son in the mostly white rural town of Reed Point, Montana. They had traveled to watch their son play in an away basketball game.
The January weather hovered around 15 degrees, and they saw a local man go past them and knock on the locked doors. He was immediately let in by a woman who they’d later find out was the co-athletic director of the school. “After she opened the doors, she spoke very clearly as to why we were standing outside.” Elsworth Goes Ahead said. “She stated, ’We don’t have any workers here yet. We’re only letting the white people in.’”
And the door was shut.
What the woman had told them would plague the group for the rest of their evening and beyond. “I was carrying the tremendous weight of this on my shoulders,” Elsworth, a Marine Corps veteran, said. “I can’t tell you how much that statement was weighing on me. It constantly consumed my thoughts with sadness and anger.”
By coincidence, Meg Singer (Diné), the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana’s new Indigenous Justice Outreach Coordinator, arrived to Goes Ahead’s hometown of Pryor, Montana four days later to introduce herself to the tribe in a community meeting. Goes Ahead said he didn’t know much about the ACLU, but when he saw others from his tribe opening up to tell their stories of Native American discrimination and racial injustice, he felt compelled to tell his story to Singer. Then something positive inside him began to happen.
“I felt that weight that was constantly holding me down, getting lighter and lighter,” he said. “I feel so thankful for that.”
It’s Singer’s job to travel across the state and help Natives become more aware of their rights. While stories like Goes Ahead’s are, unfortunately, all too common, Singer said for some people, just being able to talk about experiences can be uplifting.
“There is something super powerful that comes from hearing people’s stories,” Singer said. “After I hear people’s stories, I tell people they aren’t alone, and that gives them a lot of comfort.”
Goes Ahead was curious to know if his rights had been violated. “I said, ‘Seriously, your rights wereviolated. That is against the law!’” Singer said. Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Public Accommodations) says all people are entitled to equal enjoyment of facilities open to the public “without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”
The ACLU and Goes Ahead wrote a wrote a demand letter to the Reed Point School District asking for a response to his racial discrimination allegations.
“Knowing your rights is a sacred thing for us. Something happens to us when our rights are infringed,” Singer explained. “People don’t feel right. They don’t know what to do, and they’re angry.”
In a press release in response to the allegations, Superintendent Mike Ehinger said he wanted to make it clear that they strongly condemn racism and discrimination in any form. “However, I do not believe my staff member said that,” he said.
Ehinger explained that normally they open the doors about an hour before game time after they had time to set up. Some spectators had shown up earlier that day, and it was actually a bus driver that they had let in.
Ehinger said in his statement that the staff member does not recall saying anything to the people waiting outside. “It is possible that the staff member said something about letting in team people or staff people. I have concluded that this staff member would not have said that we are only letting in white people,” he wrote. “Such a statement would be completely out of character for the staff member and completely inconsistent with the experience I have had with the staff member.”
Ehinger expressed grievances toward the media and ACLU, noting that while “prejudices are sadly still a part of our society,” he wishes he had been contacted before the Reed Point School District received such negative publicity. He said, “Racism is terrible and something we must work together to wipe out. Working together means that all sides must be heard from before people’s reputations are damaged.”
Although Goes Ahead was quick to say that besides the alleged pre-game incident, the people of the town were friendly and hospitable. However, he stands by what he said as does his wife and the other couple who witnessed the event.
At the meeting with Singer, Goes Ahead told of another incident at a different basketball game at another high school when a white woman told eighth grade Native American cheerleaders to, “Shut the f—k up, you bitches!”
“That’s the type of discrimination our kids face all of the time,” Goes Ahead said. “Stuff like that convinced me to pursue legal action against Reed Point. I know it won’t stop Native American discrimination, but it’s my hope that it helps pave a better way for our kids.”
Although Native American students at Montana State University-Northern were some 545 miles from the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline protests, they too experienced discrimination and harassment for exercising their First Amendment rights. On campus, students are allowed to paint designs and logos representing their respective organizations on sidewalk steps known as the Hello Walk. It’s often used as a bulletin board for events as well. However, when “NoDAPL” was painted by Native American-based Sweetgrass Society, it was painted over.
The Sweetgrass Society protested the matter as a violation of their free speech, and when they aired their grievances at a forum, Sweetgrass Society and Chippewa Cree tribal member Mia Lamebull said the student Senate blatantly ignored her when she read her statement, even playing with their phones as she spoke. Sweetgrass Society and Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux tribal member Henry Charles Valdez got upset at the lack of respect and told them to put their phones down.
The Senate asked him to leave, and Valdez said he wanted it in writing that he was being denied the opportunity to speak. Instead, he was roughly escorted out of the building and arrested by a plainclothes police officer who never identified himself.
Valdez told the Havre Daily News in a statement, “They started grabbing at me, and I told them not to touch me, again, none of them had identified themselves and grabbed a hold of me. I struggled to free myself, not knowing who these men were and fearing for my well-being.”
The Havre Daily News also reported people present at the meeting “agreed that Valdez should not have been arrested, although they have not yet agreed to go on the record with their comments.”
“He had his freedom of speech infringed, there’s no other way to put it,” Singer said. “It’s all because they didn’t like what he was saying.”
After Singer heard of the arrest and of other Sweetgrass Society rights being allegedly violated, she agreed to meet with the group in Havre. The Sweetgrass Society changed venues from the campus to a church basement to avoid further scorn from other students lest they be seen talking to an ACLU representative.
“People were saying that we were lucky that we even got to have a club, that we had too much pull on campus, things like that,” Lamebull explained. Among hosting various campus events and doing local community service, they host the Annual Sweetgrass Society Pow-Wow, one of the largest Native-based events in north-central Montana.
When members enter classrooms, Lamebull said it would feel as if other students had been talking about them because entire classrooms would suddenly become silent. She said they were also blamed for the school getting local bad press.
The Sweetgrass Society students had become the targets of not just campus, but local racial and political harassment. “They had been yelling racist things at them everywhere they went, and they couldn’t even go alone to the restroom in the school!” Singer said.
“We had to have a buddy system just to go to the bathroom,” Lamebull said.
Although Singer said it was crazy something as simple as a “NoDAPL” message escalated so quickly, the students opened up to her, and “The most amazing thing happened: They began to be filled with hope, just because they knew somebody was listening to them.”
Emboldened, the Sweetgrass Society became eager to fight back. They wanted to get as many people as possible to hear their story. They would remain in the shadows no more.
Singer said, “This gaggle of kids became like, ‘This is not going to happen to the next generation. We didn’t work so hard and for so long, and have our ancestors sacrifice so much so we could get an education, just to be silenced.’”