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New beginning for race relations in South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. - The sun rose on an unseasonably warm October morning along the Missouri River as a natural blessing to begin planned efforts of reconciliation between the American Indian and non-Indian cultures in a state beleaguered by racial tension, oppressive behavior and harmful stereotypes.

On Oct. 6 hundreds of people of both races and various professions gathered to discuss what could be done to bring the entire state together to create a different world in which all have an equal share of benefits and responsibilities.

The renewed reconciliation was organized by Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. and South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds.

"I took the sunrise as a good sign for what I hoped this day would be. The warmth and glow of the sunshine will help us understand just a little more and make this a better state.

"I hope you will work with us and continue to grow and be the people we want to be," said Sen. Daschle.

South Dakota was the last state to be affected by the so-called Indian wars, when on Dec. 29, 1890, a group of the 7th Cavalry massacred nearly 300 women, children and elders at Wounded Knee.

On the 100th anniversary of that day, then Gov. George Mickelson stood at the Wounded Knee Memorial on the Pine Ridge Reservation and declared the next 100 years as years of reconciliation. Mickelson was killed in a plane crash in 1993. His declaration was put on the back burner by other administrations until the Oct. 6 efforts.

"We've only scratched the surface. This is the beginning of things to be done. We will meet, maybe at other settings and locations, but we will continue this dialogue, this networking. People want this feeling to continue," Daschle said.

"It is my hope that this unprecedented gathering will produce an honest, constructive exchange of ideas and viewpoints, and that out of that exchange will grow a new understanding - one that recognizes our similarities and respects our differences."

The feeling, among the nearly 800 people that attended the Gathering and Healing of Nations, was very positive, yet with cautionary advice from many: follow through is most important.

"If there is a small win this will be great," said Tally Plume, executive director of the Empowerment Zone on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Tribal chairmen, members of Gov. Round's staff and cabinet, civil leaders, educators from colleges, universities, public schools, tribal schools, health care advocates from throughout the state and law enforcement officials participated along with members of the general public.

"As we move forward it is important that we learn and understand each other. We need to educate ourselves, not only about our governments, but also about who we are and where we come from," said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

"Division does not accomplish anything. We must move forward with the goal in mind of partnerships and remember the important part of partnerships is honesty and trust. We can overcome the hardships and prove that unity can work for all people," he said.

Discussion group topics included health, education and youth, law agriculture and economic development. The intent was to brainstorm ideas and consolidate them so that Sen. Daschle and Gov. Rounds would have some idea where to allocate state and federal resources and also to put future meetings into perspective.

Youth were also included in the process. Daschle said it was for them this exercise was taking place. Students from the Pierre Indian Learning Center and various public schools held their own discussion groups. Students from the junior and senior high level said that school exchange programs with activities and workshops like the reconciliation program was needed in the state.

Their statement to the gathering was to learn each other's culture and increase communications.

The education group's findings were much the same. Discussion of exchange programs between schools for reasons other than sports, teacher exchanges, more American Indian teachers in public schools and better recruitment for South Dakota were viewed as important. Also the inclusion of Native American culture as a core curriculum standard in all schools took high marks.

Economic development participants were on the same page. Familiarization trips to tribal government meetings were recommended. More of an understanding of tribal and state governments would help facilitate economic ventures, the group suggested.

Participants were collective in their assessments that small steps with individuals could be a positive step toward the ultimate goal of statewide equality.

The role the media must play in the process was also raised. For example, no American Indians are viewed on local television.

J.C. Crawford, chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe said cooperation with the surrounding communities of the reservation in law enforcement was making some positive changes. On the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation, located within the community of Flandreau, the tribe, city and county cooperate with a joint law enforcement department and the chief of police is a tribal member, said Tom Ranfranz, chairman of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe.

"We work closely with the community. Tribal members are getting together with community members. We have an anti-drug task force," Ranfranz said.

Other areas of cooperation exist, participants pointed out. The Rapid City Chamber of Commerce assisted the Pine Ridge Chamber in its organization. And recently the Rapid City Chamber held a luncheon on the reservation for business people as a way of getting to know each other.

There is a lot of work to be done, all participants agreed. They also agreed to continue the process and bring about change in South Dakota.

"I am committed to change in South Dakota. This is a good learning experience for us. In 1890 it was said the sacred circle was broken. We can put it back. We must agree to move forward in measurable ways and it has to do with how people treat each other. We are of one mind and one heart," Gov. Rounds said.

He said there was a need to work with tribal government and with people. He also asked the crowd to hold him and Sen. Daschle to what they say and challenge other people and themselves to make change in the state.

"The most important thing is this," said Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University as he pointed to the healing part of the title. "We [tribes] have to heal."