Native Currents

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Racism in the Dakotas - Can you hear me now?

Racism in the Dakotas - Can you hear me now?

''We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.''

- Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail April 16, 1963

Pauline Elk was an elderly woman who cared for her two teenaged grandsons in the plains of North Dakota. Her urgent request for telephone service was filed away in a ''void file'' of West River Telecommunications Cooperative because she could not muster the $2,500 the cooperative demanded she pay within two months of her request.

Late one evening she struggled to her car and managed to drive to the nearest neighbor to call 911, complaining of severe chest pains. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

As chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation straddles North and South Dakota, I hear horror stories like Pauline Elk's often. Even more appalling is that West River receives federal support through U.S. Department of Agriculture loans and the Universal Service Fund.

When the tribe applied to the USDA in 2003 for a grant to bring broadband service to un-served areas of the reservation, the agency called West River and was told not to award the grant. The comprehensive grant application was denied on the basis of one phone call to West River.

The tribe filed complaints with the USDA Office of Civil Rights. We believe that exposure of the injustices of West River, the state agencies empowered to regulate telecommunications, and the USDA will result in bringing basic telephone services to those most in need.

Just as Dr. King sought to bring to light unspeakable injustices, the tribe's complaint exposed what happens when federal agencies give unfettered control and support to non-Indian entities in the Dakotas with the blind belief that they will faithfully serve Native people.

At least one West River director whose district includes the Standing Rock Reservation is an active member of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, an anti-tribal hate group. While federal policies of every president and Congress since the 1970s have supported tribal self-government, CERA seeks the destruction of tribes as governments.

It is no wonder that West River ignored the tribe in its plans for improvement of telecommunications infrastructure on the Standing Rock Reservation. This despite federal regulations and policies that require community input for infrastructure development supported with federal funds.

The tribe exposed to state and federal regulators that 100 percent of non-Indian households on the Standing Rock Reservation have phones - many with high-speed Internet service - while only about 69 percent of Indian households had phones. Only about one-third of Indian households with phones were able to call across the reservation.

West River structured the local calling areas so non-Indian farmers could call out to non-Indian communities off the reservation. To call across local calling areas within the reservation, however, was a long-distance call. We found that 67 percent of Indian households with phones had toll- blocking so they could not make long-distance calls. That made their phones useless.

West River left open trenches uncovered for months next to tribal housing areas. Bare telephone cables were left exposed on the ground in the middle of housing areas for seasons at a time. Phone service was often disrupted when vehicles or lawn mowers cut the exposed lines. Such conditions would not be tolerated in non-Indian communities.

West River imposed off-reservation municipal taxes on phone bills for Indian families living on the reservation. Long-distance charges were applied on 911 calls. Exorbitant and disparate charges were exacted for new phone service in violation of USDA policies. New service was withheld when an Indian spouse requested it, but immediately provided when the non-Indian spouse made the request and noted to West River that she was non-Indian.

We pray that exposure of these injustices will change the blind faith given by federal agencies to telecommunications cooperatives in Indian county, at least on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Ron His Horse Is Thunder is chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.