Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible

NOTE: Unless cited, I use “X” in place of “Dakota” in “South Dakota” or “SD” to show respect for the Dakota people and reclaim the name from anti-Indian state governments and institutions. Dakota means “ally” and WoDakota means “peace and harmony.” Neither of these two meanings reflect the beliefs and attitudes of state governments towards Dakota people.

Chamberlain Must Go!

“The racist town of Chamberlain should be erased from the map!” Elizabeth Cook-Lynn declared to a standing-room only crowd of Natives and non-Natives who erupted into applause, cheers, and high pitched LE-LE-LE-LEs this summer at the Ite Sni symposium held at School of Mines campus. The elder Native stateswoman spoke about her life growing up in Crow Creek during the 30s, 40s, and 50s and the profound anti-Indian sentiment she experienced in the towns of Chamberlain and Oacoma. She made reference to the fact that anti-Indianism in Chamberlain has a long history and tradition; and the school board’s continued battle to fight the singing of a D/Lakota honor song at a high school commencement ceremony is testament to this tradition. So we shouldn’t be surprised. We shouldn’t be mad, angry Indians, because we should just expect Chamberlain to behave the way Chamberlain does.

What was most surprising was that everyone had a common sense about Chamberlain being a racist town, even, ironically, non-Native members of the Rapid City community! But what is Chamberlain’s historic anti-Indian common sense and why is it so productive in protecting its whiteness? Before this question can be adequately answered, we should turn to the history of Chamberlain.

Anti-Indian History

When the infamous Lewis and Clark expedition began to navigate through “hostile” Sioux territory in late September 1804, they camped on sandbars and tried to avoid the Teton Sioux nation whom the explorers described as “vilest miscreants of the savage race.” Soon the “miscreants” discovered the explorers and a tense three day stand-off took place at what is now the Big Bend of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation. Lewis and Clark did not want to pay passage for their trespassing and soon kidnapped the son of a chief to guarantee their safe travel. This transgression set the precedent of Lakota-U.S. relations in the area. The behavior of succeeding settlers in the area changed little.

After Lewis and Clark came trappers and traders that began to settle near the Whetstone Agency, which was south of present-day Oacoma. Fleeing for their lives from the murderous, total war campaign waged by Colonel Henry Sibley to round up and exterminate the refugees of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, Dakota relatives took shelter in the bluffs along the Missouri River at present-day Chamberlain. Thousands of Dakota men, women, and children were killed for scalp bounties for their participation in the 1862 uprising. Lakota relatives pitied the Dakota who fled the war and helped hide them among their camps. The place where they hid became known as Tipi Maka Oyanke, or Cave Dwellers Camp.

Chamberlain was formally founded as a railroad town in 1881 and served as the gateway for gold miners seeking fortunes in the opening of the Black Hills in 1877. Richard H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, attempted to coax the Oyate (the Great Sioux Nation) into opening up the “Great Sioux Reservation” in 1888. This became known as the Pratt Commission. Anti-Indian sentiment in “Dakota Territory” fueled indignation towards the Oyate’s refusal to capitulate with the Pratt Commission, thus the measure failed. Leaders in Dakota Territory then pressured Congress to pass a bill of force sale to open up the the “Great Sioux Reservation.”

This bill became known as the “Sioux bill” of 1888 and resulted in the forced sale of over 9 million acres of land to be opened for homesteading. Some of the land was purchased at less than a dollar an acre. Some was “given away free” to white settlers. It remains as one the largest mass, illegal dispossessions of Native land in U.S. history.

In To Have This Land, historian Philip S. Hall recounts:

Citizens throughout the territory, particularly those in the Black Hills and along the Missouri River, were overjoyed. Many held formal celebrations with bonfires, speeches and parades. Chamberlain held a grand inaugural reservation ball. Partygoers there were entertained by young [white] men dressed and painted as Indians galloping their horses through the streets and staging war dances on the corners. The citizens held a mock sitting of the Pratt Commission as an expression of their contempt for the men who had failed to open the reservation.

In 1898, the Bureau of Indian Affairs founded Chamberlain Indian School on the land that is now St. Joseph’s Indian School and was once Crow Creek trust land all the way to American Creek. That same year, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was built in Canton, SX. Many D/Lakota children and adults from the Lower Brule and Crow Creek agencies were forced to attend these institutions, which functioned to domesticate, often violently and sometimes resulting in death, young children, “sexually deviant” adults, and medicine people. What this meant, in some cases, was the lobotomization of those deemed sexually or behaviorally immoral, or those that were winkte or “talked to spirits.”  Boarding school children were violently disciplined to adhere to the moral standards of white settler society. To say these institutions served as places for just assimilation is an act of violence. These were institutions of genocide intent on stripping Native people from any semblance of themselves.

In 1909, the Chamberlain Indian School closed its doors, but the boarding school model was re-established on the former BIA school’s lands by Roman Catholic Priest Henry Hogebach. Canton Asylum remained open until 1934, taking in hundreds of Native peoples from around the U.S.—nine of ten died at the asylum. The remaining trust lands north of American Creek eventually became incorporated into Chamberlain’s jurisdiction.

In 1944, Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Act, which channeled federal dollars towards damming the Missouri River. Nine sites were designated for dams, most of which were on Sioux Indian reservations. Facing the dual threats of federal termination policy and the inundation of agency buildings in the early 1950s, Crow Creek and Lower Brule were forced to negotiate with local communities about possible sites for relocating their vital infrastructure. South X congressmen E. Y. Berry and Francis Case advocated for relocating the agencies and reservation services to Chamberlain. In response to proposed move and possibility of integrating the white community with the two tribal agencies, the Brule County Commissioners issued the following in 1951:

[The Brule County Commissioners] hereby expresses its firm belief that if such [agency] offices are moved within Brule County that as a result of such move Brule County would necessarily be forced to provide the necessaries of life for a considerable number of reservation members moving into the county, and this would place an intolerable financial burden on Brule County, South Dakota.

In 1954, the Mayor of Chamberlain Hershel V. Melcher echoed the Commissioners plea with a more threatening tone:

Lately the Indian Offices at Fort Thompson, S.D. say they want to move into Chamberlain, S.D., [and it] seems they want to come whether we like it or not. Some of the boys in the Community Club seem to favor it but the people in town are most all against it. If they come in here, it will be necessary to declare open season on Indians and Government Agents, we do not feel that we are entitled to this kind of abuse from the government and we do not intend to take it peacefully… The people of Brule County do not feel we should be saddled with a relief load for Indians, that is the job of the Federal Government, and we do not intend to let an Indian light around here at all. We do not want to live with them, we don’t want them in our schools… [W]e advise you that if it come in [sic], we will then do everything we can to get rid of it and to make them wish they were not here. We do not intend to even be gentlemen about it, this is an unjust imposition on us any way you look at it.

The City Commissioners also passed the following resolution:

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED by the City Commission of the City of Chamberlain, Brule County, South Dakota, that we are opposed to the moving of the Indian Offices from Ft. Thompson, S.D., to the City of Chamberlain, S.D., for all the above reasons and for the further reasons that [it] creates an extra police problem as to drunks and petty larceny. That we therefore strongly oppose any such move to the City of Chamberlain.

Signed: Mayor Hershel V. Melcher, Commissioner C. L. McDonald, Commissioner Frank C. Knippling, Commissioner Willard Wristen, Commissioner Gerrit Brink, and Commissioner Edward C. Martin [then Democrat Candidate for Governor of South Dakota]

Unhappy by the lack of the response, Melcher went on the offensive again:

As I advised you [Congressmen] before, we have no intention of making an Indian comfortable around here, especially an official. We have a few dollar diplomats that have been making a lot of noise and trying to get everyone they possibly could to write you people in Washington that they wanted the Indians in here but the fact is that 90% of the people are strongly opposed to it and will get much more so if this thing come in [sic]. Anybody who rents them any property will have to change his address and I would not want the insurance on his building. We do not feel that this town should be ruined by a mess like this and we do not intend to take this lying down irregardless [sic] of what some official in Washington may think.

These deep-seated anti-Indian sentiments resulted in the relocation of the agencies to Oacoma and eventually back to their respective tribes. But the incident and the culminating history was not forgotten nor lost on the D/Lakota.

Following a string of sex abuses scandals at St. Joseph’s Indian School that have come to light in recent years, a class action law suit was building against the owners of the boarding school, the Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart. Former Native students of the school came forward and testified about the physical and sexual abuse they endured from priests and staff. In 2011, Steven Smith of Chamberlain, and lawyer for Sacred Heart, wrote and submitted a “constituent bill” to the SX state legislature. The bill (HB 1104) “flew through the legislature” and set the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims to file civil suits against institutions after the age of forty. Under this law plaintiffs over age 40 may file for damages only from individual perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. They may not, however, collect damages from institutions such as the Sacred Heart or the religious organizations that hired and supervised the alleged perpetrators. Smith told the Argus Leader in 2010 “nobody knew I was doing this.”

Many have commented on the state’s complicity to cover-up the sexual abuse of Native children at religious boarding schools. Attorney for the Native plaintiffs told the Huffington Post in 2011 that “The South Dakota legislators are on record as passing this bill to get rid of hard-to-defend Native cases.”

This historical survey is one small slice of a larger history of anti-Indian sentiment and behavior. To go into further detail would require a full-length book.

J’Accuse!

How is it that a town of about 2100 people can have so many “bad apples”? We cannot chalk up the history of the anti-Indianism in Chamberlain to a select few individuals, but it is a history that is endemic to the mentality and common sense of its institutions and white population. The recent controversies of whether or not a D/Lakota honor song appropriately reflects Chamberlain’s “tradition” represents just one instance in a long line of instances in which the vitriolic Indian hating comes to a head.

Board members Rebecca Reimer (President), Jay Blum, Casey Hutmacher, Leann Larson, Dallas Thompson, and Ted Petrak will join the ranks of Chamberlain’s 132 year history of Indian haters for voting against the honor song in May 2013. But these individuals represent an institution, which is supposed to represent the values of the populations it serves. That institution represents the standards of the town and its people.

The Chamberlain school district has caused injury, but it is not an exceptional nor isolated sentiment. It follows the tradition of Chamberlain’s Indian hating. Whenever I tell people where I was born and raised, if they’ve heard of it, their face contorts. “Really? Chamberlain?” they ask. It is personal recognition and repugnance that this small town harbors so much infamy for being racist. But racist is too polite a term.

I have written academic and informal pieces about Chamberlain in the past. As a result, I have also received threats of bodily harm from former white classmates and friends. I ask them, what are you defending? Are you defending and condoning this behavior? Or are you defending your whiteness? The last question usually ends the conversation. What I am talking about concerns whiteness and a very old school kind of racism. But it’s more than that. It is a deep-seated common sense that somehow recognizing or conceding anything to Native people will destroy the core values of Chamberlain. It is a community founded on violent colonial dispossession. Talking about that will put a target on your back and, in my case, cause threats of violence. But I refuse to be silent.

But can you refute history? Can you change it? Chamberlain and its people have yet (beside a small minority) to show themselves worthy of being neighbors and cohabiters along the Missouri. Saying that history is in the past only reproduces violence and anti-Indianism in the present. It removes it from the reality many Native people face today because of that history. It makes our stories less worthy, and thus makes us less worthy.

It is not the job of Native people to bear the unfair burden of living with this history. It is incumbent upon white settlers to learn and help undo inequalities of the present. The world is watching Chamberlain. The Oceti Sakowin is watching and waiting as well. We will continue to move forward, even if Chamberlain chooses not to.

As the school board tables the honor song for the spring 2014 graduation, let us not forget the injuries that have been done. For a just resolution to the problem Chamberlain presents, it may require a radical departure from the past. It may require white settlers and the institutions that defend whiteness to recognize themselves as perpetrators of historical and ongoing human rights violations against Native peoples. It may require understanding that white settlers are occupying and benefiting from stolen land. It may, as Waziyatawin notes, require solutions “just short of breaking camp.”

Hecutu Welo!

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10 Comments on “Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible”

  1. Sally says:

    Congrats Nick for your courage and your professional American journalism. This is an American history lesson people want to erase. I just went through SX (Dakota) traveling from the West Coast and my wealthy partner was constantly harassed by white store clerks , when purchasing things. It’s 2013, wake up South Dakota!

  2. Ro Johnson says:

    I live here in chamberlain SD for my whole life and I am a Native American student here at CHAMBERLAIN HIGH SCHOOL and I think this is a controversial issue about if the song truly honors everybody. Rebecca Reimer,Jay Blum, Leanne Larson, Dallas Thompson are not Indian haters and if fact Mrs. Reimer works really hard for the Native American Students here. This article is really biased

    • Nick Estes says:

      Ro, let me clarify: I do not care whether the Chamberlain School Board members harbor personal anti-Indian sentiments, nor is my article so much about the fact that the school board provides services to Native students. Of course they do, and of course they should. That’s their job. They’re also not obligated to make sure an honor song “honors” everyone. But they do represent a public institution as elected members, thus reflecting the values of an institution and a community. The bias is not so much whether or not I agree with their decisions, but the fact that they make it public policy that an honor song should not be sung on the grounds you cited. Three years in a row they’ve made that policy. Why? Do they have your best interests in mind? Are they just doing their jobs? I don’t think so, and many would agree with me.

      • Ro says:

        Your just an outsider that plasters the whole damn town racist. MAJORITY of the people supported the honor song here in the town. If they were racist they would make it that non-whites could go to the school. Your one of the reasons bigotry festers. I wasn’t stating that they make decisions based on my best interest in mind. I was stating as elected officals they do do a good job. I would encouragae you to move to chamberlain and run for the school board if you want to bring change. And besides that why are people so concerned about how we run our graduation? This is a public school who isn’t ready for a Lakota honor song.

      • Nick Estes says:

        Ro, I was born and raised in Chamberlain and lived there most of my life. My family’s from Chamberlain, Lower Brule, and Crow Creek.

      • Ro says:

        Then you understand that the town isn’t racist

      • Nick Estes says:

        Ro, I understand that the town is racist because of what its publicly elected school board members decide to do. I don’t have the time or space here to go into all the details about other aspects of the town. Read the article carefully, because I highlight the longer history of racism in Chamberlain. This incident, then, is not out of character…

  3. James Cadwell says:

    Jo have you heard of the Stockholm Syndrome? I think it would be beneficial for you to explore its definition.

  4. philolg says:

    Ro isn’t native. Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t apply.

    I grew up in Chamberlain as a white dude. Left as soon as I was able. It’s totes racist. But it’s a confused sort of racism: unlike hating black people (criminals who can’t let go of the past), jewish people (stingy misers), mexicans (job-stealing-fence-jumpers), or people with brown skin from across the ocean (terrorists), native americans are familiar and non-threatening. The hate/racism is exactly as Nick says: institutional and endemic. There’s no threatening stereotype that people could “reasonably” point to to say, “this is why we hate them.” All aforementioned races have some stereotype to point to as the “threat.” I heard several people say they didn’t like natives because they were lazy–as the non-lazy white speaker cut corners at work or in school or asked his or her parents for more money.

    Natives have always been hated in Chamberlain; Chamberlain doesn’t even know why. You can tell it doesn’t know why, because it doesn’t see that it’s in its best interest to stop being a total douche to the people who’s land it’s built on and start making some concessions, apologies, and acting with a shred of humanity.

    I am ashamed of where I grew up.

  5. […] Farmington, NM, First Nations Sculpture Garden: Rapid City and the Politics of Stolen Ground, Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible, and Insanity: Chamberlain, SX and the D/Lakota Honor Song […]


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