I visited Colgate University in 2008, the day after a derogatory racial statement was found scrawled on a bathroom stall. While I had read online reviews that Colgate students can be apathetic, the response that I witnessed on my campus visit proved this assessment wrong and reinforced my decision to apply early decision. The campus was mobilized to openly discuss the issue of racism and to invalidate the statement. My first year, the entire school devoted a portion of the curriculum to tolerance and diversity.
Some of my friends have confided that they have encountered occasional prejudice or racism on campus, but I never witnessed any such behavior myself until last spring.
I was selling tickets for a fundraiser to bring a summer camp to Lakota children on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a community that is very close to my heart and which I invest a lot of time and energy in to help. A student, now a Colgate alumnus, approached our table and stated a number of objections to our efforts based on racial stereotypes and hate; no facts, no history and no justification other than his interest in sparing taxpayers the cost of helping “lazy drunken deadbeats” who exploit free federal services.
Our attempt to educate the student about the impediments faced by the Lakota went unacknowledged. He did not want to hear about their circumstances. From the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Lakota at Wounded Knee (taught in many schools as a battle), to breached treaties, broken trust obligations, forced displacements and children being removed coercively from their families, history plays a part in the present. In my role as an advocate in solidarity with the minority voice of the Lakota Nation, I have encountered many people who are unaware of the history of the Lakota Sioux. However, this was the first incident in which I witnessed such blatant disrespect and hostility.
I have seen firsthand how the current population of Pine Ridge systematically is marginalized due, in part, to bureaucratic failures: mail is not delivered to residences, cell phones, internet access and computers are not affordable for most, water access and mass transportation are limited, schools struggle to keep teachers, roads can be impassible for weeks and health care and housing are sub-standard. I challenge anyone who believes that the Lakota are living high on federal benefits to spend a month on the Pine Ridge Reservation and then, please, report back. If you cannot get to work because there is no transportation and unpaved roads are knee-deep in mud, then you cannot hold a job; it does not mean that you are lazy. If you cannot get a ride to the medical clinic 25 miles away (which may or may not be staffed depending upon the current state of the Indian Health Service (IHS) budget, and you or your infant may die, it does not mean that you are a bad parent. The history of the Lakota Sioux and the quality of reservation life is not taught in most school curriculums in all likelihood because the topic is a great American hypocritical embarrassment. After all, as a nation we condemn other nations for displacing, colonizing and attempting to starve their indigenous populations into extinction.
Is there dysfunction, historical trauma and a distrust of white people on Pine Ridge? Is there alcoholism, unemployment, gang life and violence? Are the Lakota a difficult population to help? Without a doubt.
History has shown that not all victims of crimes against humanity suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. Like it or not, many of our nation’s natives do not trust non-natives. Further, like it or not, our forefathers committed atrocities and then agreed by treaty and trust agreement to provide housing, education and health care to the Lakota – agreements that have only been observed partially and occasionally, in the breach.
The feeling of overwhelming hopelessness that temporarily consumed me when I was confronted by the student’s unapologetic voice of prejudice affected my spring semester. In the process of working through the incident, I reflected on how this kind of hate must feel to a person of Lakota heritage.
Last spring, my peers advised me to “ignore” the student, to “move on” and to “get over it.” With due respect to my well-meaning friends whose advice I followed, ignoring racism and taking the path of least resistance was wrong.
By remaining silent and by ignoring prejudice, we become complicit in our nation’s historic failures to rectify or examine the injustices that have been inflicted on many native communities. The reality is that today, in 2011, due in part to government failures, inaction and discrimination, many Lakota children are being left behind and are being precluded from entering the Race to the Top.
The symptoms of historical trauma and bureaucratic failures are not reasons to condemn an entire community, but rather, they are the compelling reasons why outsiders should step up to help fill the gap. All Americans should support the efforts of the Lakota and other native communities to build a better future, not because we feel sorry for them or seek thanks, but because it is the right thing to do; it is a legal and moral imperative that has been ignored for too long.