CUSTER, S.D. – “What do I say when a tourist asks if it’s safe to drive onto the reservation?” Do you have a hospital or clinic? Do Indians shake hands? Why don’t Indian people look us in the eyes?”
Those are just few of the questions that arose during a seminar on relationship-building held recently at Crazy Horse Mountain. Relationships between the Indian and non-Indian community, and partnering with businesses, government agencies and communities, is essential to economic development, better understanding and reconciliation, participants in the seminar concluded.
“As an Indian person, we want respect. South Dakota needs to wake up and realize we are here and are willing to die for what we believe in. We shouldn’t have to ask permission to progress,” said Fred Mousseau, Oglala Sioux.
Seminar facilitator Larry Keown, LDK Associates, told the gathering of some 60 people to think about rules that are applied to American Indians that are not applied to others. Keown is the former supervisor at the Big Horn Mountains medicine wheel site in Wyoming.
“Are we doing things to Indians that we don’t do to anyone else?” he asked.
How does an employer respond to a customer, or an employee for that matter, about safety on the reservations? The key is education, said Mount Rushmore Memorial Superintendent Gerard Baker, Mandan/Hidatsa from the Three Affiliated Tribes.
“American Indians are still the wards of the government; the concept never changed and it’s depressing.
“All people see are free housing, health care, welfare, on and on, and that’s not true – our ancestors paid for it.”
The residents at Fort Berthold, home of the Three Affiliated Tribes, were moved from what became the bottom of the Missouri River when hydroelectric power dams were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
“It changed us forever. There was nobody on welfare before, and then they moved us. We had houses insulated with one sheet of newspaper, government housing. There was no economic stability. Life would be better if you would understand what we are going through. We have to register with the government and prove our blood quantum,” Baker said.
“I’m tired of people saying they are scared of Indians.”
Darrell Martin, former tribal chairman at Fort Belknap in North Dakota, said he had heard people say when they are near a reservation they should drive through fast.
“If you break down someone will stop and help, and they may have the part you need for your car in their yard. They may take you to their home, feed you and if necessary, give you a place to sleep,” he said.
Participants from more than a dozen organizations from the National Park Service and tourist attractions to private businesses and the city of Rapid City were told to take what they learned at the seminar back to their co-workers.
Baker said he will take federal division chiefs to visit all the tribes and challenged all managers and federal agencies to do the same.
Mount Rushmore has seen a transformation of programs that include American Indian cultural events and stories along with information about many other cultures. Baker said he told his staff that they would “catch hell, but we didn’t.”
“One grandma said maybe it was time to stop fighting, stop criticizing Mount Rushmore. There is hope,” he said.
Elders are welcomed at Mount Rushmore to help educate the general population, Baker referred to the changes at the memorial as a paradigm shift.
Topics as diverse as humor, eye contact and protocol for approaching tribal government officials were on the seminar agenda.
A few of the organizations present at the seminar had previously approached Oglala Sioux youth and offered job opportunities. The concession company at Mount Rushmore opened 11 positions for American Indian youth.
Most of the skilled workers are older, but internship and apprenticeship programs could help train younger workers, according to Pat Ross, Tribal Employment Rights Office director for the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He said that most of the job opportunities on the reservation are for self-employment.
One participant asked: “Can outsiders invest in businesses on the reservation?”
Many tribes are working on tax breaks and other incentives to accommodate potential investors. A Pizza Hut and a Taco John’s are located in Pine Ridge Village; the Pizza Hut is owned by the company and sells more pizza than any other in the region, Ross said.
And as for the hurdles, it’s the council itself, Ross said. “The chamber of commerce is working to make things better and it also depends on what the business is.”
How can outside agencies partner with the tribes?
Kim Claussen, executive director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said mentoring youth would be a help, as would scholarships. “Many of the young people don’t have the funds to make the leap to other colleges.”
Oglala Lakota College is located on Pine Ridge and has numerous locations for classes, something most of the seminar participants did not know.
To get a business on Pine Ridge, the business committee reviews an application; but Claussen said the hard thing is the infrastructure. Water lines are a problem and most businesses, organizations or families have their own water lines.
The American Indian community lives and works in two worlds with knowledge of how the non-Indian community works; they learned it while attending elementary and secondary schools. However, as was evident at the seminar, non-Indians are less aware of Indian country.
Communication values, spiritual values, humor, the concept of time, priorities and a connection to a larger family are all important issues when building relationships, the participants learned
“You had an opportunity to see our side of the world,” Mousseau said. “We are the richest tribe in spirituality, but we would like your help to have more money.”