Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Go Back To The Rez" -- Thoughts On Why It Hurts So Much

This is a guest post by Neal Eisenbraun, an attorney who resides in Philip, South Dakota


I have tried to understand why the incident in Rapid City during a Rush game, where some adults spilled some beer on some Native American kids and told them to “Go back to the rez,” why the incident ignited such a fury in the Native American community it affected. Why it caused one of the chaperones to cry that night, to assemble the kids and flee the environment, and why it caused her to cry so much during her relating of the incident to the police investigator.

I have never lived on a reservation and my skin is white so my perspective is less important to the reaction than those who were directly affected. I have endeavored, as much as is metaphorically possible, to crawl into the skin of the Native Americans who experienced the incident, and see it from their perspective. The following is what I saw.

Carleigh Campbell wants to be one of the ones who makes it. She dreams of going away somewhere to a big college in a big college town, where the buildings gleam and successful people crowd businesses the way people on the reservation crowd in crumbling trailers.

“Because here there’s not very much people around, and if I go to a bigger city there’s more people that are like more successful and stuff, and I guess they’ll help me.”

From msnbc, “Pine Ridge: A broken system failing America's most forgotten children” (last viewed March 24, 2015) (Carleigh is a Native American grade school student at Wounded Knee School, on the rez.)


A little beer spilled on some Indian kids, a foolish remark to those same kids, “Go back to the rez.” Inappropriate, certainly; wrong, without doubt, but c’mon, what’s with the almost violent reaction to the incident by the Native community where those kids were visiting from? A supreme case of overreaction, some might say, many others undoubtedly, silently believe. In a vacuum of ignorance, the Native American reaction to the incident seems to have been monumentally overblown.

But, that is what makes ignorance so dangerous, so capable of mass hurt, so inconducive to social healing.

Then what accumulation of combustible material was there to be lit by two strikes of a small match? What could cause a fire to ignite so spectacularly and to burn with such intensity? Herein are some things to consider before, or even after, determining for the others in this situation how the others 
should feel, or whether an apology might be a decent gesture. Perhaps there is room in our judgment for a pause, for even a little expression of empathy, enough, perchance, to begin the healing.

Let’s consider, first, that but for “[a] more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings [that] will never, in all probability, be found in our history…,”those Indian children would have been within their rights to tell the men in that skybox to “get off our rez.” See United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371, 388 (1980) (determining that the Black Hills were taken by the Government, not sold to the Government by the Sioux, as discussed further, below).

In United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the United States Supreme Court observed that

“For over a century now, the Sioux Nation has claimed that the United States unlawfully abrogated the Fort Laramie Treaty of April 29, 1868, 15 Stat. 635, in Art. II of which the United States pledged that the Great Sioux Reservation, including the Black Hills, would be ‘set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named.’” Id. at 374.

“The boundaries of the reservation included approximately half the area of what is now the State of South Dakota, including all of that State west of the Missouri River save for a narrow strip in the far western portion. The reservation also included a narrow strip of land west of the Missouri and north of the border between North and South Dakota.” Id. at 424, Footnote 2.

Justice Blackmun, writing for the Court, noted “President Grant's duplicity in breaching the Government's treaty obligation to keep trespassers out of the Black Hills, and the pattern of duress practiced by the Government on the starving Sioux to get them to agree to the sale of the Black Hills.” See id. at 388 (citing the lower court’s opinion which the Supreme Court was reviewing, and which it upheld; 207 Ct.Cl. at 241, 518 F.2d at 1302).

The Government, for over a hundred years, had claimed that the United States did not take the land from the Sioux, but, rather, that the Sioux had sold the land to the Government under an 1877 Treaty abrogating the Fort Laramie Treaty, the 1877 Treaty then being codified in 1877 as an Act of Congress. The United States Supreme Court disagreed, finding that “the 1877 Act effected a taking of tribal property, property which had been set aside for the exclusive occupation of the Sioux by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Id. at 424. The Supreme Court upheld a compensation award that, combined with interest, amount to over $100,000,000, and which today, because the Sioux have refuse to accept the “compensation,” (they want their land, not money from a forced taking) was placed in trust and now, with interest, exceeds $900,000,000.

The argument that, well, $900,000,000 could solve a lot, if not all, of the problems plaguing the reservation is academic, because far more so could the return of the vast amount of land that was wrongfully taken, land from which, taking the Black Hills alone, the value of gold reaped has far exceeded the $900,000,000. Nonetheless, this is beside the point that saying, “Go back to the rez,” to a Lakota Sioux is an astonishing insult considering that, but for the most “ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings [that] will [e]ver, in all probability, be found in our history,” they would have already been on the rez, and the men in the skybox, trespassers. But for “the pattern of duress practiced by the Government on the starving Sioux to get them to agree to the sale of the Black Hills,” which the Supreme Court determined was not, in fact, a sale, those Indian children would have already been on the rez.

But, let’s also consider what it means to an Indian, particularly an Indian child, to be told to “Go back to the rez.” Let’s remember that these Indian children had earned the privilege of going off the rez, if only temporarily, through their high academic achievements.


For the chaperones that night, and the parents and grandparents, let’s remember their, or their parents’ experience with “education.” From a May 2012 NPR story, “American Indian Boarding Schools Still Haunt Many” at (last viewed March 24, 2015):

The late performer and Indian activist Floyd Red Crow Westerman was haunted by his memories of boarding school. As a child, he left his reservation in South Dakota for the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School in North Dakota. Sixty years later, he still remembers watching his mother through the window as he left.

At first, he thought he was on the bus because his mother didn't want him anymore. But then he noticed she was crying.

“It was hurting her, too. It was hurting me to see that,” Westerman says. “I'll never forget. All the mothers were crying.”

Westerman spent the rest of his childhood in boarding schools far from his family and his Dakota tribe. Id. NPR


In 1945, Bill Wright, a Pattwin Indian, was sent to the Stewart Indian School in Nevada. He was just 6 years old. Wright remembers matrons bathing him in kerosene and shaving his head. Students at federal boarding schools were forbidden to express their culture — everything from wearing long hair to speaking even a single Indian word. Wright said he lost not only his language, but also his American Indian name.

“I remember coming home and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said, 'Grandma, I don't understand you,' Wright says. “She said, 'Then who are you?’”

Wright says he told her his name was Billy. “Your name's not Billy. Your name's 'TAH-rruhm,” she told him. “And I went, ‘That's not what they told me.’” Id. NPR

According to Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, the intent was to completely transform people, inside and out.

“Language, religion, family structure, economics, the way you make a living, the way you express emotion, everything,” says Lomawaima.

Lomawaima says from the start, the government's objective was to ‘erase and replace’ Indian culture, part of a larger strategy to conquer Indians. Id. NPR

NPR, in a section of its piece entitled “History of Indian Schools Traced Through Reports,” cited excerpts from a 1928 report following a federal investigation into the outcome of government policies concerning Indian boarding schools. One such excerpt reads:

Nearly every boarding school visited furnished disquieting illustrations of failure to understand the underlying principles of human behavior. Punishments of the most harmful sort are bestowed in sheer ignorance, often in a sincere attempt to be of help. Routinization is the one method used for everything; though all that we know indicates its weakness as a method in education. If there were any real knowledge of how human beings are developed through their behavior, we should not have in the Indian boarding schools the mass movements from dormitory to dining room, from dining room to classroom, from classroom back again, all completely controlled by external authority; we should hardly have children from the smallest to the largest of both sexes lined up in military formation; and we would certainly find a better way of handling boys and girls than to lock the door to the fire-escape of the girls' dormitory. Id. NPR


By 2014, the Government had finally started to address the fundamental fallacies concerning Indian education through what was no less than cultural annihilation. In a comment in the preface to an April 17, 2014 “Draft Proposal to Redesign the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education” ( [last viewed March 24, 2015]) Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, observed:

Education is how we lift people from poverty to a bright future... Poverty is an enormous problem as we’ve heard here today. The only way to lift people out of poverty is to give them an education that honors their culture, their identity, and who they are as human beings.

The Draft Proposal also related that:

American Indian students in tribal communities face challenges that are more serious than their peers in urban low-income communities. Many BIE schools are, for instance, located in some of the poorest regions of the country. According to the U.S. Census, four of the nation’s five poorest counties overlap at least partly with American Indian reservations. These communities experience a high rate of unemployment and a higher concentration of residents who are 18 or younger. For example, the Pine Ridge community experiences an 80 percent unemployment rate and the per-capita income is less than $8,000 a year. In an interview with Education Week, the executive director of the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium (a group representing tribal schools on Pine Ridge and other South Dakota reservations) described the schools’ challenge, “[w]e have a lot of young people on the reservation and not nearly enough jobs. So that presents challenges to us as educators when we are trying to convince our young people to stay in school, to do well in school, to graduate, to go on to college.” This chronic high unemployment among American Indian adults tends to contribute to substance abuse, domestic violence, and a low level of social capital in tribal communities.

Geographic isolation also contributes to the lack of economic opportunity on many American Indian reservations. Many reservations are located at great distances from cities and do not benefit from the private investment and market-based resources that other communities may receive. The remote location of many BIE-funded schools makes it difficult to recruit effective teachers and leaders. Id. Draft Report


What is there to go back TO on the rez? In an article entitled “Why help Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota” ( [last viewed March 24, 2015]) it was noted that:

From 1980 to 2000, the counties that make up Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota comprised the poorest of our nation's 3,143 counties. The 2000 census found them the third poorest, not because things got better on Pine Ridge, but because things got worse on two other South Dakota Indian Reservations.

And that:

The poverty on Pine Ridge can be described in no other terms than third world. It is common to find homes overcrowded, as those with homes take in whoever needs a roof over their heads. Many homes are without running water, and without sewer. Id.

The article cited the following statistics for Pine Ridge as of 2007 as follows:

·         Unemployment rate of 80-90%
·         Per capita income of $4,000
·         8 Times the United States rate of diabetes
·         5 Times the United States rate of cervical cancer
·         Twice the rate of heart disease
·         8 Times the United States rate of Tuberculosis
·         Alcoholism rate estimated as high as 80%
·         1 in 4 infants born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects
·         Suicide rate more than twice the national rate
·         Teen suicide rate 4 times the national rate
·         Infant mortality is three times the national rate
·         Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States and the 2nd lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Only Haiti has a lower rate. Id. (emphasis added)


In “Pine Ridge: A broken system failing America's most forgotten children”, the msnbc report referenced above, at the beginning, and which is the first of three stories by msnbc on Pine Ridge, exploring the education, social, and economic issues facing Native Americans on the reservation, msnbc set a beautiful picture within a despairing frame:

In almost any other context it would be a given, an expectation as simple as a dark cloud spitting rain. But when 12-year-old Carleigh Campbell tested proficient on the South Dakota achievement test last year, it was a rather astonishing feat.

Campbell is a student at a school where four students have attempted suicide this year alone. Roughly four out of five of her neighbors are unemployed and well over half live in deep poverty. About 70% of the students in her community will eventually drop out of school.

It’s against this backdrop that Carleigh met expectations on the state’s mandated exam, the only student out of about 150 in her school to do so. To state the obvious, Carleigh’s academic achievement is a bright spot in an epically dark place.

Carleigh is a Native American sixth grader at the Wounded Knee School located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where a well-documented plague of poverty and violence has festered since the Oglala Sioux were forced onto the reservation more than a century ago. There is virtually no infrastructure, few jobs and no major economic engines. Families are destabilized by substance abuse and want. Children often go hungry and adults die young.

These realities wash onto the schoolyards here with little runoff or relief, trapping generations of young people in hopelessness and despair.

“We’re in an urgent situation, an emergency state,” said Alice Phelps, principal at the Wounded Knee School. “But underneath all the baggage is intelligence, potential, and these children all have that.” Id. msnbc

The msnbc article also observed that it’s “extremely difficult to attract quality teachers willing to relocate to remote outposts with limited quality housing and extreme quality of life issues,” and that Dr. Charles Roessel, director of the BIE questioned “How do you get a quality teaching staff at a very remote part of the country where you don’t have a city to support or you don’t have the infrastructure and the salaries are lower?” Dr. Roessel added that, “The greatest impact in a classroom is the teacher and we need to improve the quality of that instruction. And we have to do it with our hands tied behind our back and our feet tied together, too.” Id. msnbc

Msnbc quotes Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, speaking during a town-hall style meeting between tribal members and BIE officials: “We don’t have enough money for facilities. If we need to buy something, a furnace, something like that, we have to cut out a teacher. It’s that bad.” Id. msnbc

Furthermore, msnbc notes, “[t]he economic and political implications are worst in states with the largest populations of American Indians, including New Mexico, Montana, Oklahoma and South Dakota.” Id. msnbc

William Mendoza, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education observes that there are challenging state and tribal dynamics created and perpetuated by “a history of tragedy where the effort, both real and perceived, was to assimilate American Indians.” Mendoza states that this history contributes to bureaucracies that are sometimes incompatible, and a lack of capacity and understanding of one another, even of alternative goals. Id. msnbc

The msnbc piece characterizes the incompressible difficulties reservations face, in the dearth of opportunities and the seeming impossibility in finding lasting solutions to perpetual social and educational dysfunction as indicative of the presence of “[t]he ghosts of bygone eras when Indian students were forced into boarding schools, had their hair forcibly cut and were often beaten for speaking their native languages, [that] continue to haunt Indian Country.” Id. msnbc

The odious effect of such ghosts, ever present but nearly impossible for outsiders to see or comprehend, coupled with widespread failures of the BIE, have left countless Native American students trapped in an all too familiar cycle of poverty, violence, and substance abuse, almost wholly unable to access a quality education, the surest path into the middle-class. Id. msnbc

But, the Tribe is taking action to wrest back control of educating its youth. Such actions include launching language immersion programs, planning for an all-girls school, pushing for state charter school legislation to allow for largely autonomous start-up schools, and new momentum around “crafting more culturally relevant curricula for young Indians who’ve largely lost their spiritual and historic connections to the rich history of the Lakota, members of one of the seven subtribes that make up the Great Sioux Nation.” Id. msnbc

Says Tribal President Brewer, “The tribe has not had a say in how our children will be educated and we’re standing up. … Let us decide what our children will learn, how they will be educated because the BIE, they haven’t been successful at all.” Id. msnbc

As for Carleigh, “[o]n the worst of days she turns to schoolwork to keep from being overwhelmed by worry and fear: Worry that her mother’s drinking will tear her family further apart. And fear that it might spread to her older siblings, sinking them into the kind of self-destruction that has consumed so many others here. Sometimes she cries, but mostly she just dreams about how life on the ‘rez’ could be. ‘I always think about how it could be happier. I think lots of people aren’t happy here. I always think I can cheer them up, so I try,’ she said.” Id. msnbc

Carleigh’s father, Ron Campbell, is a teacher’s aide at Wounded Knee School. He grew up on Pine Ridge, where, “suffering is woven into nearly every part of daily life.” Id. msnbc. Life expectancy for men is just 48 years old; for women, 52. Id. “The obituary sections of tribal newspapers are dotted with young-ish looking faces. As a teenager, Campbell lost nearly 10 friends to violent deaths, either by suicide or drunk driving.” Id.

So, maybe in all this there is some idea of why it hurts so much to have a bit of beer spilled on children in the context of being told to “Go back to the rez.” How it is that being told, after getting off the rez temporarily because of stellar academic performance, to “Go back to the rez” is so painful, so humilating to hear.

When a child’s dream is to get off the rez, to “go to a bigger city [where] there’s more people that are like more successful and stuff, [where] I guess they’ll help me,” only to discover that instead of helping her, they will just tell her to “Go back to the rez.” Little if any difference is there in saying to a child “Go back to Hell, where you belong.”

And for the chaperones, who know from their own endurance of that soul-crushing life on the rez what it means for the children to escape, only to face scorn and derision, for it to be made clear that they are not wanted, that they belong only on the rez, what amount of pain must that cause?

Carleigh INTENDS to go back, after empowering herself with education, “[b]ecause lots of people here are struggling and I think over time, it’s probably going to get worse, so it think I should just come back and help.”

Pray that we, who have no idea what it is like to not only merely survive, but to excel in an environment such as the one Carleigh struggles daily within, will begin to welcome her and all the children with open arms and love. They have suffered long enough.

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