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Racism in Indian country

Just as assimilation is the emotional issue in Indian country, racism and discrimination are the most avoided, the most ignored and the most covered-up issues. There is no book on racism against Indians, even though one is sorely needed.

The first time I went to South Dakota, in 1965, there were signs in the stores, bars and restaurants saying: ''No dogs or Indians allowed.'' The next time I was in the state, in 1970, the signs were still up. Shortly after that, they started to come down. But the attitudes stayed up when the signs came down. It is still not a good idea to be an Indian in South Dakota. There is an excellent chance you will be discriminated against.

L. Frank Baum, author of ''The Wizard of Oz,'' was also an anti-Indian journalist in South Dakota. In the 1890s he wrote the following editorial:

''The PIONEER has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.''

Murder is widespread in Indian country, and it is most often a case of non-Indians killing Indians. In the past decade, several series of murders of Indians have occurred in Lawrence, Kan.; in Rapid City, S.D.; and in Gallup, N.M. In most cases, the non-Indian murderer is not charged, not jailed, not tried and not convicted. In some cases, in what may be serial killings, police have still not developed a suspect or charged anyone.

In Chiloqin, Ore., the Klamath Indians have been under assault in recent years for their defense of the suckerfish, which to them is sacred. There have been drive-by shootings, intimidations and violence. The bumper sticker of the local hoodlums, who are ''defending'' local farmers who want Klamath River water, is: ''Save a farmer, fillet a sucker fish.''

Violence against the Makah Tribe and other tribes broke out after the Makahs decided to engage in a whale hunt. They had been denied this right for decades, but illegally and unfairly. When they landed a gray whale in 1999, some tribal members were attacked and one man ended up in a wheelchair.

Violence in the form of rape and sexual assault against Indian women is reported to be 3.5 times higher than the rate for the general population (source: National Sexual Violence Resource Center). The leading crime on the Navajo reservation is reported to be the rape of Navajo women. Much of the violence on this reservation happens in the border towns that draw much of their income from reservation spending. The NSVRC reports that 70 percent of the crime against Indians is committed by non-Indians.

State and county officials in many states have acted to prevent Indians from voting. In South Dakota, Montana, North Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico and other states, lawsuits have been filed seeking to have the right to vote conferred upon Indians. Some of these lawsuits go back to 1948, while others have been filed within the past decade. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a voting rights lawsuit in South Dakota as late as 2002.

Some 88 percent of Indian students now attend public schools on or near reservations. This is in accordance with the wishes of the federal government, which since 1890 has pursued a policy of forcing Indians to attend public schools instead of BIA federal schools. The dropout rate, or more accurately the ''push out rate,'' for Indians is 250 percent higher than it is for the general population. The United States as a whole still has a 20 percent dropout rate, but for Indian country, the dropout rate is 50 percent.

The dropout rate for states such as South Dakota, which Indians call the ''Mississippi of the North,'' is caused largely by racist practices in the schools, according to the STAR Web site. The four counties of southern California - Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego - with dozens of small California tribes, have had a long-standing dropout rate of 90 percent, the highest in the nation.

Indian children are actually arrested and taken out of the classroom for minor infractions, according to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Indian students are regularly harassed and physically attacked by white students. When attacks occur, the Indian students (the victims) are arrested and punished while the white students (the attackers) are not cited or arrested.

In Red Rock, Okla., in 1992, an Indian student was arrested and placed into the school jail for chewing gum. (Yes, they have a jail!) At the same time, an Anglo student, the son of a teacher, who set an Indian student's hair on fire, was not punished at all!

Indian students have been arrested, jailed and fingerprinted for such minor offenses as refusing to sit where they are told or for making too much noise. They are systematically excluded from college preparatory classes, shunted into vocational and ''bonehead'' classes, not encouraged to be in school every day, and in general ignored in preparing them for higher learning and for life.

In Winner, S.D., near the Rosebud Reservation, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the school district, the superintendent and two principals in April 2006. When a white student pushed an Indian student against a locker and called him a ''prairie nigger,'' the Indian student, a middle schooler, was arrested and jailed when he pushed back. Brian Naasz, the principal, had the police arrest the Indian student, but not the white student who instigated the fight. The ACLU documented that an Indian student was three times as likely as a white student to be arrested.

In Hayward, Wis., the white locals call the Indians ''timber niggers.'' In my home state of North Carolina we are called ''swamp niggers.'' In Arizona, the Indians are called ''desert niggers.''

I am collecting data on these types of incidents, and would love to hear from you. It is time to stop sweeping this piece of dirt under the rug.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program in Albuquerque, N.M. This is a condensed chapter from his book ''Modern American Indian Leaders,'' published in June 2007 by Mellen Press. Copyright (c) 2007. His address is The book can be ordered from