Brandon Ecoffey: 'There is no such thing as half-way racists'

The following opinion by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor, appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

Brandon Ecoffey

'There is no such thing as half-way racists’
By Brandon Ecoffey

In a recent response to an editorial put forth by Patrick Lalley, managing editor of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Jessica Giard, the editor of the Chamberlain/Oacoma Sun, managed to display the same level of willful ignorance that the Chamberlain school board showed when they denied the singing of a Native American honoring song at Chamberlain’s High School graduation.

In the editorial written by Lalley he asks, “What is wrong with Chamberlain?” He goes on to eloquently note that the denial of the singing of an honor song was a reflection of deeper race issues in the state of SD. In response Giard went on a reckless tirade defending the actions of the school board.

In her column, Giard says, “It is ridiculous to divide our community based on a school board’s decision. It is even more ridiculous for media outside our community to paint a slanted picture of our town based on the decisions of the school board.”

Well, let’s keep it real, Ms. Giard. The media didn’t create the division in your community the school board did. The vote to disallow Lakota culture and tradition its well-deserved and rightful place in Chamberlain’s lily-white graduation ceremony was tantamount to telling those young impressionable Lakota graduates, who earned that place for their culture by graduating, to cut their long hair and never speak their ancestral tongue. It wasn’t the media standing by saying, “Please tell Native children their culture isn’t worthy of being included.” No, that was Chamberlain’s school board with their 5-1 vote.

In her feeble attempt to defend the act of bigotry committed by those five members of the school board, she cites an initiative proposed by the school district to build a performing arts center, which gained praise from a non-Native owned paper, as being “progressive”. Great, we Native people love the arts as well. I reluctantly admit to shedding a tiny tear after watching “A Raisin in the Sun” live, but if only Shakespeare or Bach is performed there and never a traditional Lakota honor song, is it really progress? If so, for whom? Assimilation, Allotment, Termination, and the Sequester were also viewed as progress, but these policies impact us a little differently than they do her.

In one of the most ridiculous comments in her entire piece, she asserts that the decision was a result of “a focus on education, not on race.” I hate to put a dent in the bio-dome of white privilege that she has been sheltered under during her twelve years of living in SD, but race isn’t invisible in this state, and the weight of racism is carried on our people’s backs day in and day out. Even in academia.

She goes on to regurgitate a list of statistics that do not strengthen her argument but in fact reinforce the obvious, that the school district is not doing enough to assist Native children in their journey through academia. She writes:

“We know the Native American student population in the district -- and in the community -- has grown. In 2008-09, Chamberlain High School had 78 students who identified as Native American and of two or more races. In 2012-13, it was 101 students. The numbers have grown across the district. In the elementary school, from 158 to 181. In the middle school, 35 to 41. In fact, this year’s kindergarten class showed an even split.”

Is it not obvious that as grade level increase, the number of Native American students compared to white students decreases? I understand that cause and correlation are not one in the same but like I said, let’s keep it real. People lie, statistics don’t. Of course there are underlying issues with our Native communities that contribute to our high dropout rates, however, when a school district institutionalizes race based exclusion, the success of those being excluded is inevitably limited.

I could regurgitate my own list of statistics but the ones she cites are only noteworthy because they make me want to regurgitate something else, mainly my lunch. We can all choose to step forward and speak out against acts of blatant prejudice in SD, or we can choose to allow racism to survive by finding excuses for why something isn’t racist. For those of us who have grown up in this state and have seen discrimination play its self out for decades know it is here and it is real.

Most Native people in this state do not live in Chamberlain, but the effects of cultural self-hate and shame that fester within victims of racism impact our communities far and wide. Personal histories exist, but so does the shared history of two cultures in this state: Native and White. The graduation ceremony should have reflected this shared history.

When a school board steps forward and says White Eurocentric traditions are and will continue to be the standard, in a state where there is predominately two races, exclusion equals race-based prejudice. In 1995, the legendary hip-hop group Mobb Deep unleashed one of the most memorable rhymes in history when they said, “There is no such thing as halfway crooks.” Well, in this case, there is no such thing as halfway racists.

Brandon Ecoffey is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and is a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Brandon earned his education at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH where he majored in Government and Native American Studies. He is currently the managing editor of Native Sun News Weekly and a contributor to LastRealIndians.com and can be reached at staffwriter2@nsweekly.com

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