A Minor Penalty For A Major Infraction: Ignoring The Harassment of American Indian Children in South Dakota 

A Minor Penalty For A Major Infraction: Ignoring The Harassment of American Indian Children in South Dakota

I have lived close to 29 years on this earth and, as of yet, I have not been able to find anything that inspires me with as much natural awe and unbridled enthusiasm today as the long walk to Riverfront Stadium did when I was a kid. I remember those walks better than I remember most birthdays, Christmases and graduations; parking in the garage on the corner of 6th and Sycamore—following the funneling mob of humanity into the PNC Bank building, past the big shining foyer fountain and up the stairs onto the catwalk that stretched over I-71—marveling at the signs depicting my team’s greatest triumphs, from Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no hitters and Pete Rose’s 4,192nd hit to the dominance of The Big Red Machine and the Reds’s wire-to-wire championship in 1990—and that final approach to the entrance of a structure so big it seemed not to have been built so much as manifested on the banks of the Ohio. As I grew older, I’d come to realize that Riverfront Stadium resembled a giant alabaster soap dish than it did an architectural wonder, but when I was young, that place was my Mecca.

When I was in 4th grade, the Cincinnati Library and the Reds had this partnership with the local schools wherein students could earn a free ticket to ballgame if they got good enough grades. Now, while I was never much for scholastic diligence as a kid, I can assure you that I have never studied harder for any year of school in my life. Nothing was going to stop me from getting that ticket and, at the end of the school year, I found myself on a bus with about 20 of my classmates heading down to one of the weekday “businessperson’s specials” at Riverfront Stadium to see the Reds take on the Atlanta Braves. The tickets they gave us were in the nose-bleed seats, but instead of getting as close to the field as we could in our section, my friends and I ran up the very top row, spending half our time watching the game and the other half throwing empty peanut shells over the lip of the stadium at folks walking to and from the concession stands. I can’t recall who won (although, I’m pretty sure Ron Gant went yard), but I do know that it is one of the best memories of my childhood.

The kids from the American Horse School in Allen, South Dakota should have walked away from their class field trip this past January to see the Rapid City Rush play hockey with the same sorts of memories, or, at the very least an uneventful night of eating Super Pretzels and gossiping with their friends while a hockey game went on in the background. However, the town of Allen sits within the boundaries of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation just north of the South Dakota—Nebraska border where the student body is made up of children of Oglala Lakota descent. Growing up in Pine Ridge means dealing with levels of discrimination that the vast majority of American youth will never encounter, but even with that being said, the chaperones of the school group must have been shocked when a group of drunk white men in an executive suite above them started harassing the students, some of whom were as young as 8 years old.

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Residents of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation calling for justice for the American Horse students who were subjected to harassment and abuse at hockey game this past January (Photo: Chase A Iron Eyes)

What began in the early stages of the game as a couple of men inappropriately talking to a few of the girls from American slowly escalated into verbal and physical abuse. After the Rapid City Rush scored a goal midway through the third period, some of the men, who were by this point at turns obnoxiously and belligerently drunk, started banging their hands on the wall behind the kids and told the kids that they needed to cheer louder because they were “from the rez”. It was then that the men began to pour and spray their beer on the heads of the three rows of American Indian youth, shouting out racial slurs and eventually forcing the chaperones to take the children home early. Parents coming to pick their children up from the field trip found many of them disconsolate, reeking of stale beer and visibly traumatized after what was supposed to be a reward for their academic achievement.

The pursuit of justice for these Native children has been predictably, if not still discouragingly, lax. Despite large protests from members of the Oglala Lakota community and civil rights activists, along with public condemnations of the racially motivated harassment by these drunk men by Rapid City’s mayor, it would appear at the present moment as if the generations of discrimination of American Indians by whites in the region still holds sway within the justice system. According to Gloria Kitsopoulos, the superintendent and principal of the American Horse School and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, state officials showed tremendous disrespect to herself and the community as a whole in their dealings with them. During a visit from Rapid City’s chief of police, city attorney and South Dakota’s attorney general, a PR rep from Rapid City who was helping to facilitate a meeting with concerned residents addressed the group after first taking the microphone by telling them that, “if anyone wants to use the talking stick when I’m done, let me know,”  while the Rapid City Journal ran victim blaming smear on page one of their paper asking, “Did native students stand for national anthem?”, as if an answer one way or the other could justify a group of grown men flinging racist epithets and dumping beer on the heads of children.

Ultimately, only one of the men, Philip, SD resident Trace O’ Connell, is facing a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct for which he formally plead not guilty last week. The trial will not go before a jury and, within 2-3 weeks, Magistrate Judge Eric Strawn should have reached a decision which, even if it comes back guilty, amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist for O’ Connell. The judge has removed the possibility of the defendant serving any jail time and, at most, he will be forced to pay a fine of up to $500.

More than anything, this trial has reinforced the fact that the residents of Pine Ridge Reservation are second class citizens and that the levels of discrimination, isolation and poverty that they face on daily basis are greater than any ethnic or social group in America. To be born in Pine Ridge means growing up with an 85% chance that your parents are unemployed, a 25% chance of suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome and 3 times the likelihood of dying in infancy. Living in Pine Ridge means being part of a population with 8 times the national rate of diabetes and tuberculosis, 5 times the national rate of cervical cancer, twice the rate of heart disease and suicide and a life expectancy that is lower than every other part of the Western Hemisphere besides Haiti. Neither the degree nor the ubiquity of this sort of inequality are accidental. A region doesn’t develop a per capita income that is less than one-tenth of national average on its own. That sort of poverty is imposed from the top down. It is the result of centuries of jingoistic and xenophobic policies regarding tribal populations who have historically been seen as impediments to white progress and the national interest. It comes from a societal infrastructure that was constructed with the express purpose of wiping a race of people from the face of the earth, whether it be through war, hunger, disease or cultural assassination.

In the lived experience of these children we see the racial inequity inherent in the American dream. Just as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between The World & Me about how the brass rings made available to white, suburban America were nowhere to be found on the streets of West Baltimore, they are conspicuously absent from the rez as well. With few exceptions, socioeconomic mobility is an illusion on Pine Ridge. You will be born into poverty and you will die in poverty, and the poverty you live in will cause your death to come sooner than virtually any people you may ever know. For the most part, the only way to escape that cycle of despair is to leave the rez and, as these children from the American Horse School have learned in one of the hardest ways imaginable, to leave the rez is to open yourself up to the derision and hostility of white people who in large part still view you as little more than the progeny of racist football team nicknames and western film caricatures.

For millions of Americans—many of whom have been unable to grab a foothold on the nebulous construct that we call the American dream—sports are a beautiful distraction. Even if only for a couple hours on a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon, they’re able to forget the banality of their workaday existence and the troubles that stalk them during the rest of the week and lose themselves in a game and, in doing so, turn that game into something greater. Sports are vessels for our emotions. They keep hold of unfulfilled aspirations and burbling passions. They are our escape. So, what does it say about us as a society when, because of the color of their skin or the patch of land they live on, a group of children are so far removed the American dream that they’re not even allowed to enjoy the escape many of us use when we are unable to achieve it?

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