The upcoming mayoral election in Rapid City, South Dakota may likely come down to the Native American vote. Lately the hype around the potential impact of the Native vote has quickly been followed by the disappointment associated with our people’s failure to show up at the polls, but this election may be different. Unlike past city elections the Native American population in Rapid City has vested interest in getting out and casting their vote.
The decision facing Native people in Rapid City goes far beyond usual politics. The city has become a racial hotbed fueled by more than 100 years of biased media reporting about Native people in the local news, poverty, an absent relationship with the city’s law enforcement and the failure of the city’s justice system to equally apply the law to all races.
Rapid City has witnessed beer being poured on Native children, large protests by Native people who feel that lethal force is being used against them unnecissarily by the police, and a boycott by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who refused to spend any tribal dollars in the city. At the same time Penning County, where Rapid City is located, has been found to be in violation of federal law when handling child custody hearings involving Native American children. Up until a federal judge ruled it illegal, the state had been seizing Native children without allowing parents to view evidence against them or contest the charges. The kids were then immersed in to the for-profit South Dakota foster care system.
Two men are running for mayor. One's platform contains the model way of incorporating minority populations into city government, while the other would have fit in with the Ferguson, Missouri police department.
Mayor Sam Kooiker is the former. He moved to Rapid City from Iowa and has embraced the Native community by taking a strong stance against racial discrimination, as well as discrimination against those suffering from physical and mental handicaps. During his time in office he has made a number of political gestures toward the Native community that have resulted in real public policy changes. These changes include the establishment of a polling place smack dab in the middle of the most densely populated Native American neighborhood in the city and the creation of a civil rights commission that has the legal authority to enforce the city’s antidiscrimination laws. Kooiker has also consistently tapped Native people to fill empty seats on city boards.
Conversely, Steve Allender’s reign as a city official is not so flattering, and the current divide between police and the Native community can be placed directly on his shoulders. During Allender’s time as an administrator in the Rapid City Police Department the number of Native officers has declined to the low single digits despite serving a population that is nearly 30 percent Native. Allender has admittedly taken part in a police culture that has made a mockery of race issues, a culture that continues to exist despite his departure from the police force. According to former RCPD officer Glen Yellow Robe, Allender consistently took part in an environment within the RCPD that promoted bigotry and racism. Yellow Robe had recorded Allender making racist jokes while on the job but when Allender found out about the recording he erased it in a fit of rage. Shortly after the incident Yellow Robe was let go from the force. In statements made as part of a lawsuit against the RCPD, Allender is quoted as saying one of his favorite jokes is, “Black is beautiful, brown is grand, but white's the color of the big boss man." According to Yellow Robe, Allender regularly asked the Native officers if they were consuming canine for lunch—a jab at one of the most sacred ceremonies in Lakota culture.
It isn’t a coincidence that these racial issues still exist within the RCPD as demonstrated by the highly offensive memes shared by Officer Anthony Meirose and others within the police department just days before Meirose shot and killed Anthony Locke in December of last year. In any other city in the world the consistent acceptance of racially insensitive behavior by an individual would have eliminated them as a credible candidate—but then again this is Rapid City.
The choice is very simple: Will Native Americans in the city reelect a man that has made real efforts to incorporate them into the decision-making process, or do we elect a man, who through his work while head of the Rapid City Police Department, has done just the opposite?
Brandon Ecoffey is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He attended Dartmouth College and is an editor at Lakota Country Times.