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Conference aims to mend the circle

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The theme of "Mending the Circle" at a recent American
Indian conference in Columbia was enhanced by calls for developing strength
with unity.

At the one-day event, sponsored by the South Carolina Commission for
Minority Affairs; Gerald Ice, Lakota; and Bill Miller, Mohican, admonished
the nearly 1,000 conferees that they must present themselves as one people
before the nation's leadership to right the wrongs of the past.

The state's American Indians were convened to celebrate the status of five
groups that were recognized officially as Indian organizations by South
Carolina under a new state law passed in February.

Ice, of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, explained that American
Indians today have embraced the modern society.

"The main subject here is mending the circle," he said. "The circle never
disappears. It has never been broken. The hoop is always there. But
somehow, all we did was drift away from this hoop. The hoop is still there,
but we went to another society, where we are living today. Our way of life
is still here. It's just that us, we drifted away."

They moved to a square world, Ice said: "Everything I see is square. We
live in a square building. We open a square door. It's a different society
we live in today."

He said that in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a federal law which
allowed American Indians to speak their languages as well as practice their
cultures openly. "Let's use their system and their technology to bring back
our language and our way of life. For so long, we have been quiet. Let's
learn to use the system. We all can help each other. Go and talk to the
tribes out there.

"Then we can say, 'Now we can speak your language, Mr. President. Let's
review our treaties. You have been changing our treaties without our
consent.' Let's remind him of a few things. He's got a pencil that has an
eraser on top. We can change the laws."

Miller, whose mother is German, described his abusive Mohican father who
beat her every Sunday after a three-day drunk. As a nine-year-old boy --
and for the next nine years -- he stood up to his father to stop him from
hitting his mother.

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At age 18, he left the Wisconsin Stockbridge-Munsee reservation after high
school to study art in Milwaukee. Instead, for the next 28 years he made
music and recorded songs, and finally was recognized with a GRAMMY Award
this year.

Miller, 50, now a father of five, explained his desire to see people live
together in harmony. "We need to know each other's feelings, and the best
way to do that is right here over lunch, breaking bread.

"What I got is control over my heart, my soul. What I choose ... now is not
to be a bitter, ticked-off Indian. I want to reconcile with my brothers and
sisters. I want to sit down and share my feelings.

"This is the way the world should be. There shouldn't be any gated
communities. It shouldn't be just us, and not you.

"If I were to draw two circles up here in the air: This is the majority
culture over here and this is the minority culture over there. There is a
lot in between that we need to take care of. There is a lot of resistance,
a lot of pride, a lot of fear, a lot [of] stereotyping that keeps us apart.

"I want us to acknowledge each other, be understanding. I think we need to
develop our people socially, economically, emotionally as we address all of
our issues and bring back the integrity and dignity to a broken people."

Janie Davis, executive director of the South Carolina Commission of
Minority Affairs, awarded plaques to the five American Indian groups.

They were the Chickasaw descendants known as Chaloklowa Chickasaw Indian
People of Hemingway, S.C.; the Waccamaw Indian People of Conway, S.C.; one
of several Pee Dee groups known as the Pee Dee Indian Nation of Upper South
Carolina of Little Rock, S.C.; descendants of Wassamasaws calling
themselves the Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians of Monck's Corner,
S.C.; and the Cherokee Indian Tribe of South Carolina Inc. of Columbia,

These groups now can compete as Indians for federal money coming through
state agencies. In some cases, they may be able to go directly to federal
agencies for grants.