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Reviving the Year of Reconciliation in South Dakota

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My wife and I took my son-in-law and daughter to Denny's for a late breakfast this week. Our waitress was a really nice Lakota girl named Daphne. She was new there, but the service she offered us was exceptionally good. Like all new people, though, she made a mistake: she took our ticket and gave it to the people at the table next to us.

Well, they paid it, but soon discovered Daphne's mistake. The manager brought Daphne to our table and in a very polite way explained to us the mistake she had made and that he had corrected our ticket and probably supposing that we would be angry over this human mistake, he told Daphne, in front of us, that she would have to make up the difference in our meal and our neighbors meal out of her tip.

We weren't angry. We were just happy to see such a nice Lakota girl working at a job that she would never been able to fill even 10 years ago. I called Daphne aside and said, "We all make mistakes and I'm not going to deprive you of your tip because you earned it," and I left another tip on the table for her. She beamed and gave us her profound thanks.

I bring this up because 10 or 15 years ago, my then newspaper, Indian Country Today, began a campaign to point out the hiring disparities in Rapid City. We sent Native Americans into business places to apply for jobs when the jobs were advertised and we were not at all surprised to hear of the prejudice they experienced simply by applying for work. We attacked those businesses by naming them.

Gradually we saw the changes happen. Denny's was one of the first to open up their jobs to Native Americans. The Alex Johnson Hotel, Burger King, TGIF, Red Lobster, Wells Fargo Bank, Black Hills Federal Credit Union -- these are just a few of the businesses that became active employers of Native Americans.

It felt so good to go into a business establishment and see young Lakota men and women filling a place of employment. In fact, today if you walked into the Cambell Street office of Liberty Motors, a Jeep and Chrysler dealer, and you ask to speak to the manager, you will be pleasantly surprised when that manager comes out to greet you and he turns out to be Frank Shortbull, the son of the Oglala Lakota College President, Tom Shortbull.

I brought up the story about Daphne at Denny's because it occurred to us that the boss was not being mean to her, but was instead treating her like he would any of his waitresses if they had made the same mistake. In other words, she was not treated any differently than the blonde waitress working the next table. The manager was eager to point this out to us.

There are some people out there that slam Rapid City at every turn. They call it the most prejudiced community in America, but some of the complainers do not live here and they do not know that this town is changing rapidly for the better. There are those Native Americans that do live here and we are leading the fight to close the door on racial prejudice every time it rears its ugly head. We are winning the battle as can be seen throughout the city. But nothing comes easy and there will always be those deeply prejudiced people that will never be won over, but they are slowly being pushed to the background.

This week I met with Gerrard Baker, the Superintendent of the Mount Rushmore National Monument, a man from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, Laurette Pourier, a Lakota lady in the forefront of the fight to contain racial bigotry, and several prominent Rapid Citians. We formed a committee to revive the Year of Reconciliation that came about 20 years ago. A friend of mine, Harold Iron Shield, told me about the efforts he made to get reconciliation going in Minnesota without success. I thought that the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1990 would be the perfect springboard to make it happen.

I wrote an editorial challenging Republican Governor George Mickelson to not only proclaim a Year of Reconciliation, but also to replace Columbus Day with Native American Day. Gov. Mickelson, and a strong legislature, made it all happen. When he died tragically in a plane crash however, all of our combined efforts went down with him.

To honor the 20th anniversary of both happenings, we will make an effort to bring Indians and whites together to revive and celebrate Reconciliation and Native American Day statewide for the entire year of 2010.

I think it will work and I will keep you posted. So all of you naysayers who would condemn Rapid City as the most prejudiced city in America, just wait and watch.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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