The relationship between Native Americans and Rapid City's law enforcement has been contentious at best.
Indians began to move to Rapid City during the Great Depression and during World War II in search of jobs that were nearly non-existent on the reservations. Many found jobs, settled down, and became hardworking, taxpaying citizens.
In those early days the police department knew nothing about their new residents and sadly, did nothing to learn about them. Most Indian coming from the reservations spoke their own language thus complicating their relationships with the police. As the miscommunications and lack of understanding between the cops and the Indians grew, tensions between the two also escalated. The divisiveness reached its peak in the early 1970s when the American Indian Movement took a stand for human and civil rights, often doing so right in the faces of the local police.
When Governor George Mickelson and I initiated the Year of Reconciliation in 1990, it was an effort to open the lines of communications between Indians and whites. Twenty years later, in 2010, in order to celebrate the Year of Reconciliation, Gov. Mike Rounds proclaimed a Year of Unity. Race relations slowly improved over these 20 years, but inevitably we took a step forward and two steps back.
Last week a Native American named Daniel Tiger was stopped for a traffic violation in North Rapid. No word has come out so far to indicate what caused him to pull a pistol and fire point blank into the heads of the three police officers. Officer James Ryan McCandless died at the scene. Officer Nick Armstrong is in critical condition and Officer Tim Doyle, although shot in the face, is recovering.
There is no excuse for Tiger's actions and I will not dignify his actions by making excuses for him. What he did was wrong and resulted in the death of a police officer and of the loss of his own life.
I am writing about this terrible happening because I am concerned that the years of work to improved race relations in South Dakota will take a step backward. Everybody suffers because of this action including the families of the police officers and definitely the family of Tiger, a family well known to me.
Oftentimes, the way things are reported in the local media can have an adverse impact upon the Indian community. Everyone in the Native community believes that the actions of Tiger were unwarranted. The local media made it a key point to go back in history and show that the last Rapid City police officer killed in a shooting happened in 1916. They also reported on the death of police officers by accident and those killed while off of duty. What they did not report was the answer to the question that arose in the Indian community: How many Native Americans were killed by police officers since 1916? You can be assured that it was far, far more than police officers killed by Indians.
Every Native American I spoke to since the shooting had a story to tell about their treatment at the hands of the Rapid City Police Department and that of the Pennington County Sheriff's Department. To a person they recalled being manhandled and mistreated. And this has created an underlying feeling of fear of the police. I can also speak from personal experience.
There is a lot of healing to be done between Native Americans and the police officers of Rapid City and it is time for cooler heads to prevail.
Until all of the circumstances of the shooting are investigated and made public it is unfair of any segment of the city to speculate. Rumors are flying and there is anger and concern in both communities; the Indian and the white.
My heartfelt feelings go out to the families of Officers McCandless, Doyle and Armstrong, but I also extend my sympathy to the family of Daniel Tiger.
This shooting was anything but the norm and could have happened in any community anywhere. We have to put it behind us and get back to the business of curing an ill that has been a part of Sound Dakota from its beginning: the racial prejudice that has created a divide between Indians and whites.
A lot of progress has been made in the last 20 years, but there is a lot yet to be done. We cannot allow what happened last week to turn back the clock on our progress thus far.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net