This week, if you’re driving in North Rapid City near the Journey Museum, take a minute to check out the beautiful little community garden area just across the road at the Club for Boys.
The garden is a special achievement for several young boys and girls in our community, and was built with a grant in special collaboration with the SDSU Extension Office, the Rapid City Area Schools SOLUTIONS program, and J Scull Construction. For the past six weeks, it has also been the site of ProjectRespect.Org’s Team Adolescents Towards Excellence (TATE) Mentoring Program.
TATE was initiated with the goal of building positive relationships between adolescent boys and teen girls, based on Lakota values incorporated into a curriculum designed by students at Oglala Lakota College in Rapid City. For six sessions throughout the summer, youth participated in projects such as building picnic tables, visiting with special needs animals, planting a rose garden, and even some bowling. Each project focused on a specific Lakota virtue such as compassion, humility and tolerance.
The boys and girls in the program have come a long way in six short weeks. Session one was filled with some frustration; the boys defied their older female mentors and even hurled a few insults at them. One of the mentors wanted to quit. But I asked her to give it one more session. By session two, the boys were calmer and more attentive. They enjoyed a nice meal and participated in a compassion lesson about injured and rescued animals. By session four, the same boys who teased their mentors a few weeks earlier wanted to honor them by planting a rose.
The boys and girls in the TATE Program face tremendous hardships, including homelessness. Some of the youth have been in and out of foster care. Statistics tell us that over half of the boys in our program will drop out of high school, and over one third of the girls will be sexually assaulted. I know that every one of these youth has the ability to beat the odds, but overcoming poverty and all of the ugliness that comes with it isn’t something that these kids can do on their own.
In order to increase the high school graduation rates and decrease violence amongst our youth in Rapid City, we need to become involved. Pilot programs like TATE are a step. But we need programs that grow with the youth as they encounter new and changing pressures to make the wrong choices. We need creativity and the willingness to try new programs. We can never fail by serving our youth, our failure lies in doing nothing. While I don’t know what the future holds for the kids I’ve had the privilege to work with this summer, I know that they felt a sense of value and acceptance in what their were doing. And that’s a great start.Holly Sortland is Founder and Executive Director of ProjectRespect.Org
We have all seen her— the woman in front of us in line at the grocery store. She may be white, black, or Native American. She has children, and often times she’s pregnant. We notice her because she doesn’t have the luxury of keeping her welfare anonymous to other shoppers by using her electronic EBT card. On this day she’s buying food with WIC checks, and we wait as the cashier watches her sign each check for the allotted items, stamps it, and moves on to the next item. As the woman signs the checks, collects her groceries and gathers her children, we silently judge her.
Our judgments of her vary widely on our own identities, ethnicity, gender, economic class, and upbringings, and depend on our race and on her race. We may judge her with sympathy and pity, or possibly contempt. We might go through a quiet litmus test in our heads: She doesn’t look that poor. Her kids look well dressed. Why is she on welfare?
Some of us might recognize our judgment, and feeling a pang of guilt we may go out of our way to smile at the woman, as to send her a message that we’re not bothered by her situation, that we understand it. We do this less for her, and more to make ourselves feel better.
We may leave the store feeling grateful that we have the cash or the credit to buy groceries that aren’t limited to items that say “WIC approved.” Or, we might leave with a feeling of irritation.
The woman in the store exists in virtually every town and city in America. Her race and ethnicity varies widely by the demography, but the image of her—a young, healthy woman, purchasing food by a government program to feed her family—stirs up a lot of sentiment that many of us aren’t comfortable talking about. It is hard to admit that we judge people. It is even harder to admit that we have prejudices.
In my community of Rapid City, nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the woman at the grocery store may very well be Native American. And this image, of a low-income woman of color with children using what some consider to be a government “hand-out”, has become a stereotype that has been engrained in our community for decades. People who are unfamiliar with the history of the Great Plains, the fight for the Black Hills, and the government’s policies against Native Americans, aren’t aware of the generational, entrenched racism that occurs here. Several years ago, while I was still in high school, one of my teachers referred to Rapid City as the “deep South of the Great Plains” alluding to the racial tensions between Native and Non-Natives. It’s true that when we think about the history of race relations in America, we think of blacks and whites in the South, or possibly Hispanics in the Southwest. We think of marches and civil disobedience. Very few Americans think of the plight of our nation’s indigenous people or the American Indian Movement of the 1970's, when racial tensions between Natives and non-Natives peaked.
I am not going to claim that I am immune to racial stereotyping and prejudices. But I was fortunate to grow up in a household with parents who valued empathy and an understanding of history. When I was in the seventh grade, my Dad gave me a copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown. The book was never on a required reading list in my school, so I count myself blessed to have read it when I did.
Middle school is rough. We look for our niche. We’re impressionable and angry and misunderstood. The middle school years are also the time, I believe, that many of us start to form racial identity. We try desperately to figure out where we belong. Many of the white youth in my generation started clinging to the prejudices and stereotypes of their parents’ generation: Indians don’t work. Indians need to stop blaming white people. Indians get free healthcare, free food, free land…so why are they poor?
It wasn’t uncommon to hear terms like ‘Injuns’ or even ‘prairie nigger’ from peers while I was growing up. In high school, when someone was looking to buy beer for a party, a kid might drive by the Prairie Market and look for a homeless Native American outside the store to buy a couple of cases for them, knowing full well that in return, he or she would only ask for a beer or two as a tip.
I don’t want to characterize Rapid City or the Black Hills to make it sound as if it is comprised of intolerant, bigoted people. To the contrary, there are thousands of wonderful community members, including educators, politicians, religious and civic representatives who have worked hard to address and overcome the racial injustices that occur. Likewise, I had many peers who had parents like mine who were taught to value differences and combat preconceived stereotypes.
But I also know many more people who continue to cling to their prejudices. They include college educated individuals who work with Native and other minority populations in their day to day jobs. Too often have I heard the following sentiment: “I understand that what the white people did was awful…I understand that they lost all their land… But why are they still so angry? Don’t you think it’s time they get over it?”
I have heard friends and even family talk openly--at times in front of their children--about how Walmart should be avoided during certain times of the month when Native Americans from nearby reservations come to shop. There words may not be intentionally hateful, but their words send an underlying message to their children and those around them that “we are better than those people.”
Like most places in America, the societal issues in Rapid City aren’t limited to race and ethnicity. Class plays a large role as well. The complexity of how racism mixes with classism makes it harder to trace our prejudices, and the two seem to fuel each other. I have witnessed instances where lower-income individuals seem to hold harsher and more blatant prejudices against Native Americans in our community. This may be due to a lack of education and income, and, possibly, a societal need to feel superior or above another class and race to overcome their own feelings of inequality.
Issues of class and economic status are becoming more heated throughout the country, and South Dakota is no exception. Some middle to upper-middle class people, myself included, are guilty of what I call the “Walmart Superiority" complex. This is when we shop at Walmart to take advantage of the low prices, but we secretly think that we don’t belong there. We cringe at the Walmart regulars, i.e. the “People of Walmart,” as they’ve been dubbed on the popular website, www.peopleofwalmart.com. But the “People of Walmart” aren’t some elusive subset of uncouth members of society. Most of them are America’s poor people--America’s underclass. And whether or not we want to admit it, they don’t make us feel uncomfortable because of the way they dress or the way they talk. They make us feel uncomfortable because they’re poor. Seeing them in large crowds together, watching them pack their grocery carts full of cheap food around a sleeping child reminds us of failure. That we’re failing. That in many ways, America is failing.
And so, what does this issue of race and class have to do with sexual violence? I don’t need to illustrate the link between poverty and sexual violence. Studies and statistics continue to reflect that poor women and children are much more likely to be sexually assaulted than wealthier and higher educated people. Add race into the equation and the risk skyrockets. Native American women and youth are almost three times as likely to be victimized. And although we may not witness the violence, or know someone who has endured it, most of us- in one way or another- contribute to its causation. Our underline prejudices are interconnected to an ugly cycle bred by racism and classism, and it creates domestic violence, sexual violence, and in truly horrific cases, it creates what happened with George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. And it needs to stop.
It is time that South Dakotans start holding honest discussions about race and class in our communities. It is time we start owning up to our stereotyping and our prejudicing. This will not be easy. It is scary to admit that we are wrong, that perhaps our parents were wrong, that the favorite teacher or coach that we held in high esteem was wrong. It takes a brave person to explore their inner preconceived notions, to admit that maybe the other side has a point, to concede that maybe things are worse than they believe. We can’t undo history, and prejudices and racism will likely always exist, but I think it’s possible to start a new conversation about Native and non-Native relations in South Dakota. We need to start listening to our youth, and watching our young children as they interact with their friends. I watch my first grade son, who is Hispanic, play with Native Americans, African Americans and Caucasian children at his school in North Rapid, an area that is labeled as “low-income” but nonetheless is rich in culture among its young students, and I wonder what age this all will change.
Walk the halls at Rapid City Central High School, the largest school in the state with almost 2,000 students, and you don’t see the immersion and intercultural friendships that you see in the grade schools in North Rapid. The drop out rate among Native American students at Rapid City Central is estimated to be between 50-60%.
Somewhere along the way, our youth are learning prejudices. Somewhere along they way, they start separating themselves into “us” and “them,” and they start thinking that this is the way it will always be. We owe it to them, their future, and the future of our communities to try harder, to change our discourse, to examine our thinking. And we need to start now. Holly Sortland is Founder and Executive Director of ProjectRespect.Org
When I was in my late teens and early 20’s I had very distorted views of women. I thought that to be strong was to not be vulnerable, to always be cool and to never tell a girl how I felt. I thought women were the enemy. I ended up marrying the “enemy.” After a rough divorce I had to find myself all over again. It took awhile but I found joy in my single life. Once I started dating again I was strong and confident. But, I also realized I could just be myself and not play the dating game. I was just me. Women really started responding to me. I would be completely honest with them and we had a blast together. Some relationships worked out, some didn’t. Sometimes it was just talking for an hour, some I dated for months. But, almost all of them ended well. I believe that is because I respected myself and respected them. I didn’t try to lie to them to ‘score.’ I didn’t pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I didn’t hope that every girl I dated was ‘the one’. I wasn’t trying to act supper cool or like I knew everything. I just enjoyed the date. It was very easy. I learned that an honest relationship was a fun one.
After dating off and on I met the love of my life, my ‘Ma han sani’ (the other side of me). Because I was honest with her from the beginning we had a great foundation for a beautiful relationship. We are each other’s best friends. We have almost no secrets between us. We support each other completely. We accept each other 100% without trying to change the other. Neither of us tries to get the upper hand. I can’t imagine anyone wanting the upper hand in a relationship. That just seems like too much work and too much responsibility. If one is completely dominant and the other is submissive, then you will always be looked to for every answer. Wouldn’t you rather have someone strong love you and be with you? This is what I love about my Denise.
My wife Denise lost her first husband and two children, 8 & 6, in a plane crash in 2003.
I met her 10 months later. Neither of us were looking, wanting or needing a relationship. We just wanted to get out, date, and do things with the opposite sex. But, we also kept our hearts open for the right one. We started dating and were madly in love within months. We’ve now been married over six years. It’s been incredible. We’ve had our share of fights and arguments, but each time we’ve grown closer together. The one thing that has helped us grown stronger together is always talking things through. We both have old wounds from past relationships and experiences. When they come up they hurt and it’s easy to get defensive. But, just remember to talk it through. It’s tough at the beginning, but the more you try the easier it gets. Now, we have discussions and talks instead of arguing and yelling. Believe me, it’s much better that way! We still get our feelings hurt, but we trust each other so much that we can just share them and figure it out together. Most of the time, the hurt came from a misunderstanding. Once we talk it out, it’s one more thing we’ve conquered together. Our relationship is truly built on honesty and trust. Without it, we would have never been able to climb life’s 14’ers together. We adopted a son from Ethiopia two years ago. While that has been challenging, by supporting and being there for each other we’ve grown even closer.
If you are truly a strong, confident man, you don’t need to act tough, pretend you’re super cool, or put a girl down in front of others. A real man will be proud of his girlfriend. A real man will brag about how much he loves her.
To some, I might sound like a wimp because I am a man talking about feelings, emotions, listening and sharing. But, believe me, I am a real man. I love playing sports (football & basketball) and watching sports, (football, college hoops and hockey) yelling with my team.
I enjoy a good burp and fart. I have run marathons and am in training for the Tough Mudder, Colorado, a 10-mile run through military-style obstacles. I stand up for what I believe in and I will defend myself and my family, to the death if need be. I am also madly in love with my wife. I respect her so much. I respect how she is trying to become an artist. She is the strongest person I know. To lose her entire family and still open her heart to me is the most courageous thing I’ve ever seen. I love seeing her throw sarcasm back at me. While I listen to her and respect her, I also let her know when she does something I don’t like. But, I do that with respect and compassion. If you yell and scream the point is lost and all they hear is the emotion. If you get personal and attack all they will do is get personal and defensive. When you respect yourself, it’s much easier to respect others. Then, you can have conversations and discussions instead of yelling and fighting and hurting each other.
Only a weak person tries to put someone down. Only the weakest man hits a woman. A man who doesn’t respect women will end up with a woman that doesn’t respect him. A man who treats women like the enemy will end up with a nightmare relationship. A man who truly respects a woman, and finds someone who respects him, will end up with his dream girl. I am living proof.
Steve Livingston lives in Colorado with his wife and son.
It’s a toxic night.
I don’t know what brought it on. I was putting baby down and thinking about this house, how we need to tear down the walls and rebuild the frames, like dad (Willie) did with that place. I guess that is what started it, thinking of that ragtag family. How we were thrown together and no one made it out in one piece. Everywhere I go, there are soulless bodies strewn about. Between my birth family and my adopted family, no one made it out of either in one piece; for different reasons.
I lay here getting more full in the head, heavy in the heart and feeling the toxicity taking over me and knowing I have no other place to dump it, save my husband who has heard thousands of chapters from the same book. Other people know some chapters of the story, not the whole book. No one can stomach it. I can’t blame them. If it weren’t my own story, I’d probably turn away too.
My truth is so poisonous that it drives me to scramble to get words down on a page, to make art, to literally and artistically vomit so it doesn’t consume me. Because it would if I let it; my unspoken truth would be the death of me.
Everyone who knows my story wants to know what made me different. HOW did I, make it out okay, normal, healthy? I never really knew, I never really thought about it, I just saw an out, took it, and rarely looked back. I was out of prison, freed, and enjoying my freedom. But now, as I get older; now, as I raise my daughter without a road map, I see how I got out. I see how I made it out alive, sane and battered, but not broken.
It is through seeing my survival that I can see my siblings’ slow deaths clearer, with understanding and empathy. Actually, as an artist, it makes me want to interview them…have them tell me what they were thinking/feeling/dealing. I now understand why my one sister turned to drugs. She alone, is a miracle, getting hooked on, then off, of meth. Not an easy thing to do. So, as I look at my siblings, who are beaten down, battered, torn, and semi soulless, I look at myself and say, okay, what DID make you so different?
What saved me was my words, my animals, my art. None of my siblings, from either family had any of those, but I did, and I used them.
That was/is the difference.
Now, when I feel insanity knocking, I pick up my tools, no matter how rusty, and use them, because the other option would mean a slow, horrible death. Most of my siblings from both of my families are dead, spiritually. (And, unfortunately, literally.) I cannot die a slow miserable, crazy soundless death. I have too much to do, a beautiful daughter to raise and a life to live out with my fabulous husband. We were destined for each other, we are soul mates and we belong together, forever.
We have been blessed with this gorgeous daughter who is the love of our lives — we are her world. She came to us just as much as we called her. As a family and as individuals, we are destined for amazing things. I cannot go and leave her Motherless.
She needs what I didn’t have: stability, consistency, and unconditional love. It is in her that I see my success. I survived a private familial holocaust. I was a child of two worlds of which I was a part of neither: I could never fully touch my feet to the ground until I found and made my own road map.
Now, as every day dawns and I look deep into the eyes of my precious Turtle, I see my own success, as a survivor, as a woman, and as a mother. And THAT has made every scar, every abandonment, every beating, every soul wound, worth it. Because I protected my innermost soul, of which I can now fully share and give to the first real family I have had since I was born on this earth.
Mary Black Bonnet is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation (incorrectly known to the greater world as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe). She was born in Rosebud, South Dakota but taken from her mother at a young age and raised by a non-Native family. She spent the next 22 years trying to get back to her homeland. In her early 20s, she returned, learned her culture and language, and then used it in her work, writing both in Lakota and English. Her piece "Purging" was originally posted on her Life as a Human blog in October 2010.
What does respect mean to me?
I was given the breath of life twenty six years ago and shared my mother’s womb with my best friend forever. We were born a mere thirty seconds a part by cesarean section. My mother was stitched up with fishing line and developed a staph infection shortly after giving birth to us. We were born during the eighties on an Indian Reservation where doctors sterilized Indian women without their consent. I don’t think her bang up stitch job came much as a surprise to her, but when I first learned this, I vowed to myself, my mother, and my God that I would always appreciate what I have and who I am.
So here I sit today, in the middle of my Indian Reservation (Yes, I personalized this place to be my own.) I ponder my life on a daily basis, always wondering what I can do to make life ‘"better"’ for people here. I know whatever it is that I choose to do, I will approach everything with respect for life. I also know that before I can even attempt change anywhere, I must begin with myself. This inner change in me must always begin with my respect for life.
Respect is a way of living. It is being aware of not only myself and my capabilities, but being aware of everything around me. My awareness is what helps me appreciate being alive, which allows me to appreciate all other living things. Being grateful and having appreciation for everything opens and unlocks the door to holding respect and keeping it. We can lose respect for ourselves, other people or even God, but we can also gain it back.
I know respect isn’t just given to anyone or anything. I must earn your respect; therefore I have to respect myself first. If I don’t respect myself, then who will? I believe compassion and respect hold hands tightly. Their fingers are linked together like old high school sweethearts. Compassion is the ability to look through another person’s eyes. I think compassion, gratitude, and respect are the droplets that make up the much needed spring rain storm of love.
Sunny Clifford is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and lives in Kyle, SD.
Four years ago, on a monthly work trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I helped a bright, articulate 17-year-old girl apply for admission to a residential job training program. The application required her to disclose whether or not she had children, and I was taken aback when she indicated that she had given birth to her third child just three weeks earlier.
At the time, I was nearly twice her age and pregnant with my third child. I was well aware of the emotional roller-coaster of childbearing and the stress and physical exhaustion of childbirth—let alone the sometimes terrifying task of caring for a tiny newborn. I was in awe that this young girl had endured this process three times in her short life and was trying her best to find a way to beat the odds and better herself—even when it likely meant she would have to temporarily give up her children.
I don’t know what ever came of this young woman, but I think about her often. I like to think that she earned an education and is happily raising her children somewhere, but I know that statistics say otherwise. The odds are that she is probably still out there struggling. It is very possible that she’s had more children. I don’t know the circumstances of how she became pregnant so often in her youth, but I know that statistics also say that it’s very likely she was sexually assaulted at one point in her life, or, sadly, she will be a victim in the future.
Most of us are well aware of the statistic that one of every five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and Native American women and girls face a much higher risk, with one of every three falling victim. My personal experiences with young indigenous women, however, tell me that the number is likely even higher than that. A recent online survey conducted by Project Respect.Org indicated that over 60% of Native women questioned between the ages `of 16 and 62 have been assaulted, the vast majority of them never reporting the abuse.
I founded Project Respect.Org in the fall of 2011 because, as we know, this ugly issue has been ignored far too long. A recent chilling public service campaign from the Indian Law Resource Center and the 1491s hauntingly states that when it comes to addressing sexual assaults in Indian Country, most of us, Native and non-Natives alike, have been overwhelmingly complacent. With that said, it is important to acknowledge the organizations that are making efforts to stop this epidemic, including the Indian Law Resource Center, the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, the Sicangu Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence and others.
It is equally important to acknowledge that the epidemic of sexual violence against Native American youth is not solely an “Indian” problem. It is everyone’s problem; Native, non-Native, young, old, gay and straight. And it’s your problem. The trickle down effect of sexual violence- regardless of the community- reaches us all at some point. Just as the problem of sexual violence was largely introduced to Native culture through colonization by non-Natives, it needs to end with the help of non-Natives.
And while the issue of sexual assault remains a grim topic, Project Respect.Org aims to create a new form of prevention that focuses on respect, beauty, education and hope. We will do it through art, writing, social media tools and community interventions that focus on boys and men as much as it focuses on girls and women. We will do it with cultural understanding and shared values. Every person that gets involved, by doing something as simple as sharing a positive blog post or a Facebook status that addresses this issue, or stopping a friend from saying something derogatory about someone else-- it all starts a movement. A movement that isn’t only for people like the young mother I met four years ago and her children, but for my children too. It’s everyone’s movement. In time, we won’t just be winning the war on sexual violence; we’ll be winning something much greater. Something we may not have been able to put our finger on just yet, but we’re getting closer to it with every person that gets involved; every person that does something. And it all starts with respect. You can help us to kick start our movement by making a secure $10 donation through Fundly at https://fundly.com/donate/AxN0GnFAa8Holly Sortland is the Founder and Executive Director of Project Respect.Org. Contact her at email@example.com
In October 2011, Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduced the Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women (SAVE Native Women) Act. The bill would provide Indian Country with jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on Indian lands, improve the Native programs under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and improve data gathering programs to better understand and respond to sex trafficking of Native women.
South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson is a co-sponsor of the bill. For more information about the SAVE Native Women Act, visit http://akaka.senate.gov/upload/s1763.pdf
Ryan Red Corn of Buffalo Nickle Creative created this amazing video on behalf of the Indian Law Resource Center. Watch and share! And then watch it again. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AUt6sxF2s2U