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Native Sun News: Mario Gonzalez goes from ball court to law court

Mario Gonzalez, attorney at law in Rapid City.

From the ball court to the law court
Action heroes sometimes only take legal action
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Correspondent

RAPID CITY –– There are two basic types of hero in Lakota country; long dead legendary ancestors, and athletes who can shoot an orange ball through an iron hoop.

Mario Gonzalez was born in 1944, long after most of his legendary ancestors had gone to the spirit world, but as a young man, at Douglas High School, just east of Rapid City, he was a ballplayer of note, and not just basketball, but football, too. He was happy to be just that, had no real idea he could be anything but that.

“I loved high school,” Mario said, relaxing behind his law office desk, high up on the upper floor of the oldest office building in downtown Rapid City. “I never wanted it to end.”

It’s hard to picture Mario Gonzalez, tribal attorney, noted Black Hills claim litigator, as a young man focused only on playing sports, uncertain what to do with his life after high school, but we are all on a journey from somewhere.

Mario’s journey started from the same place many breed Lakota start from, a hybrid world, part Wasicu, but always definitively Lakota, not by his choice, or even his family’s choice, but for the life-altering bedrock reality he was nut brown. In Mario’s specific case, that place was Kadoka, South Dakota. To the Kadoka Wasicu, he was Lakota, worse still, a breed they could not definitively label and dismiss like they could full-bloods. He was not isolated in some myopic corner pocket of the reservation. He was a part of their community and yet he was not one of them, and small town America is not comfortable with blurred lines and confusing identities.

Not that things would have been better had he been back on the reservation, most of them are not comfortable with blurred lines of confusing identities, either. To many close-minded Lakota, he was iyeska, a mixed blood, mongrelized from true Lakota, and his Hispanic surname made them uncharitably perceive him as different from Lakota as the Wasicu thought him different from them.

There is an Hispanic/Lakota community near where Mario’s mother Geneva Wilcox was raised on the Pine Ridge reservation. These people were originally Pueblo Indio vaqueros who came north working cattle and married into the Lakota tribe, their children registered as half breeds. Mario’s father, Gabriel Gonzalez, was not from those people, so Mario could not fall back on even that Hispanic/Lakota support group.

Gabriel came north from Texas because of WWII, he was in the Army Air Force, a member of a glider unit stationed at Alliance, Nebraska, where he met Geneva, who had come down from Pine Ridge to babysit for some relatives.

Mario Gonzalez, Douglas High School fullback, 1963.

“After my father was discharged from the Army Air Force in 1946,” Mario said, “our family moved to Wanblee, my mother’s home village on the Pine Ridge reservation.”

Gabriel had been trained in body and fender work and he eventually found work at a garage in Kadoka where Mario started school.

Mario had an older cousin, Elgin Brown, forgotten these days, but a stand-out athlete, especially in basketball, and this influenced him to focus on athletics.

“As a sophomore I played every (football) game, offense and defense,” Mario said. “But as a junior, I wasn’t playing at all, and I wasn’t happy with that. I had purchased a car by working on the federal minuteman missile site in the summer of 1962, and told my father I was going to register for school in Rapid City.”

Gabriel had left body and fender work in 1957, applying those skills to work on bridges, and by 1962 he was working on bridges near Rapid City so the family relocated to Box Elder. When Mario went to register at Rapid City High School, they “told me that I couldn’t go to school there because my family lived in the Douglas School District. I went to school there for two years. It was an integrated school, many Air Force dependents attended there. Being Mexican and Native American our life was easier in the city, our family was not confronted with the prejudices we faced living in smaller towns.”

Douglas High School turned out to be far different from Kadoka High School. Douglas was a large Class A school, whereas Kadoka had been a Class B school, and yet despite having far more kids to beat out for a starting spot, Mario found himself back on the field playing at Douglas. He even became captain of the basketball team: “My life changed when I attended that school. (Douglas) was a brand new high school. We were the first people that went there and we formed bonds that last to this day, we were like family. I was judged on my skills, not my biracial heritage. My self-confidence greatly improved. By the time I was graduating in 1964, all my friends were going to college, and so I thought, perhaps I should also go to college. I had never thought of it before. At Kadoka, it was quite an achievement for someone to graduate high school; very few students went off to college.”

After being graduated from Black Hills State, Mario was graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law in 1972.

“I never had plans to go to law school,” Mario said. “I wanted to get a master’s degree in the social sciences. I was looking for scholarships and grants but couldn’t find anything. Most of my under-graduate tuition was paid from Bureau of Indian Affairs Higher Education grants; it wasn’t much but it was enough to barely survive.”

Mario was married to the former Dorothy Lois Conroy by then and supporting his first child. He lost Dorothy to Inflammatory Breast Cancer in 2002.

Read the rest of the story on the all-new Native Sun News website: From the ball court to the law court

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