Tim Giago: Racial injustice a red and white issue in South Dakota
Back in the days when many Indian reservation families were moving to Rapid City, especially in the 1940s, in search of employment, the first thing they ran into was the inability to find housing. The white landlords, and all of the landlords were white, did not rent to Indians. There were no civil rights laws to protect minorities back then.

As a result many of the Native newcomers to Rapid City lived along the banks of Rapid Creek where they put up clapboard shacks and eventually, as the area along the creek and Oshkosh Street grew, the Indian village started to look like a refugee camp. In fact, the locals called it Oshkosh Camp. They dug pits and set up makeshift outhouses and drew their water from Rapid Creek. They did their best to survive on the banks of the creek where Crazy Horse was born.

One the big sports of the local white boys, primarily high school boys and young men from the South Dakota School of Mines, was to drink beer on Friday or Saturday nights and then drive down Omaha Street at the intersection of Oshkosh St., jump out of their cars and throw the bottles and cans at the “Indian shacks.”

Eventually a small area in North Rapid around Lemon Avenue was opened to Indians. When my dad got a job at Rapid City Air Force Base (now it is Ellsworth) we moved from Kyle on the reservation to a tarpaper shack on Lemon Avenue with no indoor plumbing and a two-seater outhouse.

Electricity had not reached that street yet so we used kerosene lamps. We drove down to the community water pump on 5th Street and filled galvanized iron garbage buckets with water for our home use. The next obstacle many Indians experienced was finding a job. I recall applying for a job at a local bakery when I was a teenager and as the owner interviewed me he looked at the application and then looked at me and back at the application. I knew instinctively what he was thinking. Finally he said, “You look like a healthy young man, but I don’t ever hire anyone from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation because if I put them to work they get their first paycheck and never come back.” He dismissed me with that comment.

There was no employment discrimination law back then so the employer could use any reason not to hire someone from the reservation and get away with it.

Many of families moving to Rapid City struggled to survive even though they made the move because there was some kind of employment here. As a result many of the children, me included, were taken to the Indian mission boarding schools on the reservation during the school year. So we spent nine months at mission boarding school on the reservation and the three summer months in the city.

For recreation we used to swim in Rapid Creek. The creek was wider then and had several deep holes. One spot on the river was sort of a gathering place for the Indian kids from the reservations. Most of us couldn’t afford bathing suits so we cut away the legs of our old jeans and used them for swimming trunks. This idea became sort of a fad among the white kids a few years later.

Anyhow, this one very popular swimming hole was our spot to gather on those hot summer days. The community soon gave our swimming hole a name: they called it Riff Raff.

We didn’t understand the meaning of the words riff raff until most of us grew up. The very name should have alerted us (Indians) as to what the white community thought of us.

One day my friend “Wobbie” and I walked downtown and when we got to the famous Alex Johnson Hotel we watched the tourists go in and out of the revolving doors. The doors fascinated us so we thought we would see how they worked. Back in those days the hotel had doormen. We didn’t see the doorman because he was inside and so we pushed the revolving door and went into the hotel only to be confronted by a very angry doorman. He kicked us with his booted foot and screamed, “Get the hell out of here you dirty little Indians.”

Sixty years later there are still racial barriers in this city, but we have struggled mightily to bring them down. America has always looked at racial injustice as a black and white issue, but here is South Dakota it has always been a red and white issue. After all, 120 years ago we were still at war with each other.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. 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 first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com

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