Improving race relations: Rapid City makes a start

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RAPID CITY, S.D. - A packed house that surprised even local planners began a day-long forum on race relations at Rapid City Regional Hospital.

During the morning session Sept. 25, the crowd of more than 150 heard an historical overview of race relations between Indians and non-Indians presented by Sicangu Lakota speaker Gene Thin Elk. A key theme was his belief the current climate is bad and will not be changed or understood until it is seen within its historical context. The attitudes and actions of the past, on both sides, have produced the present stalemate, Thin Elk said.

An afternoon session gave community members, divided somewhat evenly between Indian and non-Indian participants of every race, the opportunity to voice their experiences and concerns. Although moderator Michelle Leach, a Hunkpapa Lakota from Standing Rock, asked those speaking not to dwell too much on historical grievances, past wrongs were a regular theme of the Native American speakers.

Many local people who went to the microphone attempted to offer solutions.

"The first place to begin to alleviate racism is in the classroom," Edgar Bear Runner, an Oglala Lakota, said. Many subsequent speakers echoed his belief a stronger emphasis on instituting wider diversity training in the areas schools was needed.

Another Native American voice was that of Mary Cleland who spoke of "how ingrained Native American people themselves have become with notions of white privilege. We, as Native American people, must give up our own myths of mediocrity about ourselves."

Other input from the Native American communities ran to the more practical. Marie Lambert, Oglala Lakota, said her primary worries involved the incidence of diabetes among her people. She also said she was becoming concerned with the increase of weight problems among Native American children.

Kay Porterfield, a non-Native Rapid City resident asked, "What percentage of teachers, classified personnel, city employees -- all -- are Native American?" She went on to say, "I know there are many qualified, because I teach them. Many don't even bother to apply because of past experiences. This city needs to set up a program to recruit qualified Native Americans."

By the 10th speaker, Mary Wright, a long-time Rapid City resident, stood up and said she would like to hear from the non-Natives present. "I don't think we can forget about the past -- but we need to talk about it like mature adults. We need to continue this kind of forum. Just seeing you all here -- I'm just amazed, it is fantastic."

In all, 21 community members rose to make brief statements before the audience broke into 10 groups of nine people -- composed evenly of Indian and non-Indian participants. The groups were charged with identifying three specific problems in the community along with tentative solutions. The groups also were asked to choose a leader who would be available, if needed, to serve on a task force that the mayor's office might form.

The one-day forum was the result of a coordinated effort by five county and city agencies: the Rapid City Mayor's office, Pennington County Sheriff's office, Sioux San Hospital, Rapid City Regional Hospital and Youth and Family Services. Co-hosts were Rapid City Mayor Jim Shaw and Sioux San Hospital Service Unit Director Michelle Leach.