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Racism is common in public schools, panelists say

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Racism is alive and well in public schools, panelists told educators at the recent South Dakota Indian Education Summit in Rapid City.

The racism may not always be obvious, panelists said; it may be hidden in written tests or through the denial of access to a student's information.

''The area where I work is with Indian identity and racism, and often we look at Indian identity as racism,'' said Martin Reinhardt, Ojibway and research associate with the Interwest Equity Assistance Center at Colorado State University.

''There are two other major dimensions we have to consider from an American Indian perspective, which oftentimes are as important as the whole idea of biology of identity or the physicality of identity, and that is the cultural and legal and political,'' he said.

The relationship between states, the federal government and the tribes is a major issue, he said. States or the federal government will undermine the tribal jurisdiction and relationship with students and tribal members.

''The idea of states having access to student information and the tribes not having access to their own students' information - that's a product of institutional racism; it's legal and political,'' Reinhardt said.

South Dakota, which has an American Indian education office, is working toward providing information to tribes about students' academic and personal achievements and behavior.

Racism does exist throughout the state of South Dakota and especially in the schools, panelists agreed; but it is getting better, said Brian Brewer, director of the Lakota Nation Invitational Tournament and an educator with the Pine Ridge Schools.

''We were refused service in restaurants. Thirty years ago we would come to town, play and get out,'' Brewer said, referring to the long history of basketball tournaments that bring thousands of students, families and supporters from reservations across the region to Rapid City. ''But now we are more welcome.''

''Growing up on the reservation and working with students, the athletes and seeing racism that I experienced myself and then seeing different racism throughout the state as we traveled. Even a few years ago, all the things that were done in Rapid City, we still have teams that are still not welcome in establishments.

''But the doors have opened for us; we do have people we can call on.''

Through sporting events, there is an attempt to build relationships, Brewer said. It's better, he said, but there is a lot more to do.

''Anything that stops minority students from succeeding is institutional racism,'' said Norma Bixby, director of education for the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

''We want to help teachers where we come from and involve Indian people with major decisions to produce teachers who can teach Indian children,'' Bixby said.

While there is a lack of understanding on both sides of the issue, the most misunderstanding comes from the non-Indian community because public schools have not included education on the American Indian culture and language up to this point in time.

South Dakota is now in the beginning stages of including American Indian culture and language in all public schools. The curriculum is yet to be formulated, but the future looms brighter, educators at the summit said.

''There are many challenges in the border communities. We give the best we can; we are not always right, but we are trying,'' said Susan Smit, superintendent at the Wagner Schools, located on the Yankton Reservation.