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From congressional roundtables to city parks, representation matters

On the Indian Country Today newscast for Thursday, September 17, 2020 is guest Melanie Moniz, followed by Indian Country Today reporter Kolby KickingWoman

Indigenous people in Bismarck, North Dakota are aiming to change the name of Custer Park. Thursday's guest is community organizer Melanie Moniz, from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation who says she has been advocating to rename the park because it's named after a racist. She says she has questioned the name on the park since she was young. Moniz has become increasingly vocal though the city has remained reluctant to change the name.

Moniz describes how Indigenous people, and their allies, feel about the park, saying Custer is a man who set out to separate families, raped one Cheyenne woman and refused to lead Black troops in the Civil War. Despite the mounting concerns from the community, Moniz feels like the non-Indigenous community does not want to hear her, and works against them in their efforts to reclaim this part of their history.

Reporter Kolby KickingWoman joins the newscast to discuss the Tribal Unity Impact Days. He also addresses a profile he is reporting on Congressional candidate Rudy Soto in Idaho. Here are some of their comments: 

Melanie Moniz:
"Through an Indigenous perspective, George Armstrong Custer is not a hero. He is in fact, someone who has caused a lot of harm and violence to Indigenous people."

"He did contribute to the genocide of Indigenous peoples throughout our nation. While he was a soldier in the civil war, Custer refused to lead Black soldiers something that cost him promotions in rank. And then when he did leave he came toward the North to violently remove and caused trauma, to which he took women and children hostage. Took a woman, a Cheyenne woman, and for lack of a better word, excuse me, raped her and many other things. Killed many, many horses left his men multiple times and went AWOL, refused orders. Him and the seventh Calvary actually made a game of the Buffalo massacres that then led to starvation of Indigenous peoples."

"Coming home is quite a culture shock. Just seeing the negative racist symbolism that is all throughout the communities in North Dakota is troubling. It's concerning, it's definitely impactful and hard to live with. As a little girl seeing places named after this individual upset me. And I didn't know how to handle that. I did express this to my parents and my father specifically, must have seen the distress in my eyes, as he didn't have the answers to give and just told me that yes, that I was right, that this was wrong but everything will be okay. And then went on to have a conversation with my mother about wishing that they could do something about this. And I became involved when I seen the same look in my daughter's eyes, when we learned that there was a park in our community named after Custer."

"So we formed in early August of 2019 and have been growing since then. We did come forward with the request to change the name in December of 2019, have met with the park board a series of times and are continuing on in the effort."

"It's been, it's been very difficult, Patty. There has been a lot of disrespectful and dismissive behavior from the park board and from people in the community."

"The decision was to have another meeting and receive public input at a following meeting and they also decided to create a new policy with this request. However they have named parks previously and with this new policy came... it's a very bias policy and it's very it's very difficult. It's very difficult."

"As a group, we did ask for the creation of an ad hoc committee to be created that could look into other parks in the area or other things that are inconsiderate to Indigenous peoples. That was dismissed."

"The policy states that a park may be named after an upstanding person who has contributed to the community, which is disheartening because Custer has never been [that] to our community. Along with that came a very disheartening...So we're not allowed to reintroduce another request for 15 years, that's in the policy. So they created this policy with our request and then immediately deviated."

"We are continuing to try to get the name changed. This is something that is negatively impacting us. Not only have they not heard us, they are almost working against us and it's unfortunate and it's sad because there's definitely bridges that need to be built in our community. We're continuing to try to work with them. It's been very difficult. It's very tiring going into the same spaces that you are hurting and you're continuously disrespected." 

"So we weren't aware of this, this isn't public knowledge that this informal committee was created. We actually found out through a third party when we were approached for an interview regarding this. We have asked to be a part of that committee and we have had three previous meetings prior to us attending and it just seems to be at a standstill there's no tribal representation, no tribal historians at the table."

"Absolutely. The support from allies has been wonderful. It's actually been quite inspiring to see so many people from different cultures and backgrounds come together to work on this effort."

"The goal is to work with the park board and learn how are we going to put an educational component that speaks to the true unbiased history of Custer, which is very dark and very violent. How are we going to do that? And put this in a public park, where are youth are playing?"

"We have met at a standstill. It's been a number of meetings now that they've had previously and with us attending. And we are continuing to see...unsure of how to do this work from both sides. And so right now, what we're doing is we're focusing on the group in expanding and multiple people are beginning to come forward and want to work on this. And so what we're focusing on right now is getting everyone the training that is needed to prepare for the next steps and continue to try to work with the park board.

Kolby KickingWoman:
"I tuned in for a couple minutes just before hopping on the newscast and NCAI president Fawn Sharp said this year is five times larger than any Tribal Unity Impact Days that they've held in the past. Which kind of makes sense not all of the tribal leaders can travel to DC for a couple of days in the fall or during this month. And it's been interesting cause, I've attended twice in the past and normally they just kind of cycle through members of Congress, they'll speak for 10 or 15 minutes and then they'll head back to their office or other business they have but now that they have kind of more of a round table, there's been four or five, six tribal leaders that asked questions of different members of Congress that are speaking."

"I think the goal for impact days is just to provide tribal leaders an opportunity to meet with members of Congress virtually. It's important to have their issues heard especially during these times tribes have been affected disproportionately by COVID-19. Rep. Kilmer said a lot of these things, tribes have been dealing with even before the coronavirus hit. And so it's important to let the people making these laws and legislation know tribal needs across the country."

"Tribal leaders kind of talked about personal protection equipment and the lack of sufficient access to it in their communities. Yesterday, it was just all members of the house and they referred and talked about the heroes act, which has passed their chamber. But the next round of corona relief has not passed the Senate. And so they say they are continuing to work on getting something passed for Indian Country."

"There was a couple of conversations about when and if the next round of relief is passed and being able to get it to tribes in a faster capacity."

"No, I didn't hear anything about vaccine testing. There was more talk about funding of the Indian Health Service in general and updating infrastructure of hospitals at different facilities throughout the country."

"Economic recovery and the coronavirus, public safety and justice, education, one access to broadband. Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ruben Gallego, both of Arizona, took part in a round table together. And Grijalva was talking about a hearing that mandated the opening of BIE schools and how the department didn't send a witness to that hearing and that they are looking into why that happened. And, he said that, Native students at these schools shouldn't be guinea pigs."

"I have a profile coming out soon on a Rudy Soto. He is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Idaho. I believe the first congressional district. I had a great conversation with him. He's got a really interesting story. He worked in D.C. for a number of years for a number of Native nonprofits, as well as a legislative staffer for a couple of members of Congress, so I'm looking forward to that coming out and getting his story out there before his election November."

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