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Kent: Racism rears its head, again, in South Dakota

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If it seems we’ve walked down South Dakota’s road of racial unrest before, it’s because we have.

One of the first stories I covered as a journalist in this northern plains state was a hate crime.

The body of Robert “Boo” Many Horses was found dumped upside down in a garbage can in the reservation border town of Mobridge. Four white youths were apprehended for involvement in his death, but subsequently released on bail under “very loose” house arrest.

The story presented was that Many Horses had been drinking with the white youths and passed out. One of the defendants allegedly thought it would be funny to dump Many Horses in a trash can – where his body was later found.

In spite of protests by Native Americans (and their non-Native supporters) across the state, and calls for a federal investigation into the matter, charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault, and abuse or neglect of a disabled adult initiated against the four white youths were dismissed.

The matter came up again during the 1999 U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearings in Rapid City. Allegations that the case had been purposely mishandled and that severe actions would have been taken had Native Americans been accused of the same crime against a white man rang throughout. The commission’s report that “racial issues” existed in South Dakota was later dismissed by then-Gov. Bill Janklow as “garbage.”

It took an investigative report by a national news entity to bring the matter to a civil closure four years later, though still lacking in criminal justice as far as many were concerned.

The Many Horses case, the unsolved deaths of Native Americans along Rapid Creek, the unsolved deaths near Whiteclay and the numerous other race-related incidents that have occurred in South Dakota make the state a sitting target for anyone who points in this direction when speaking of “racial issues.”

Although this latest incident, fortunately, was not fatal, we are once again faced with racism.

St. Patrick’s Day; four teens and one adolescent, all white, cruise Rapid City firing a BB gun and throwing urine at Native Americans. They’re caught, released and awaiting hearings in juvenile court. Possible felony charges include malicious intimidation or harassment along with misdemeanor crimes of simple assault and intentionally causing contact with bodily fluids or waste.

The mayor’s upset; the police chief’s upset, and rightfully so. Good for them. But more importantly, the Native American community is upset. And we should all be upset.

We should also be concerned that the miscarriage of justice in the Many Horses case doesn’t happen again. That comments about the youths “picking on homeless people” have already been given by those in authority makes me uneasy. They give me the feeling that we’re on the verge of shifting this from a crime against Native Americans to a crime against homeless people – thereby cleansing ourselves of the “racial issue” image this incident creates.

Although it’s quite true that racism exists in many areas of our country (as local officials have pointed out to me in the past) and probable that the incident in Rapid City on St. Patrick’s Day is part of a nationwide trend (as noted by the city’s police chief), the bottom line is that this particular problem is our problem. Referencing what happens in other areas regarding racism or violence is comparable to attempting to validate the behavior we’ve experienced.

Do we stop policing our schools for drugs because “every school in the country” has them? Hardly.

I trust the judicial system will take this case as seriously and deliver true justice accordingly. No talk of “boys will be boys,” “just a childish prank” or the similar excuses used when juvenile delinquency has presented itself in the past. The very serious social impacts of the crime – and it was a crime – must be addressed.

When it’s all said and done quality educational community service should be required as part of the sentence; not just the offenders telling other school kids what they did was wrong, but actually performing work within the Native American community. Receiving supervised cultural sensitivity training from a respected Lakota elder should also be part of the rehabilitation package. Perhaps this will help show these young criminals that they are not above anyone because of the color of their skin.

Maya Angelou has noted that history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.

We’ve missed the opportunity to stop history from repeating itself. Let’s not miss the opportunity to deliver justice.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio journalist who lives in Hot Springs, S.D.; he can be reached at