Alex Calderon via Flickr

Tensions high in South Dakota after alleged assault on Native students

An alleged hate crime against Lakota youth has sparked a series of reported assaults and a firestorm on social media

An alleged hate crime against a group of Native American students at a hockey game in Rapid City, South Dakota last month has raised racial tensions between local Native Americans and non-Natives, sparking a series of reported assaults against Native community members and a firestorm on social media.

The 57 students, members of the Oglala Lakota tribe, were bused to a hockey game at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center on Jan. 24 as a treat for their participation in an after-school program.

“It was wonderful for the kids until the third [period],” said trip chaperone and school board member Justin Poor Bear. That was when two non-Native attendees seated in the VIP section above the students reportedly hurled racial epithets, beer and a Frisbee at the youths.

Poor Bear was eventually forced to escort the students, ages 8 to 15, off the premises to avoid what he says were calls from the assailants to engage in a face-to-face confrontation.

An unnamed suspect in the matter has reportedly come forward, and a police investigation is under way. However, the Rapid City Police Department (RCPD) has not yet decided whether or not to file criminal charges.

Since the alleged hate crime, at least three similar assaults against Native Americans in Rapid City have been reported.

On Feb. 1, two groups of Native Americans — a group of women and an elderly couple — attending a rodeo at the civic center were reportedly harassed and doused with beer. Center officials could not be reached for comment.

The following day, Native American Raven Waln reported that she was physically assaulted by an aggressive police officer after being pulled over for driving without a license or insurance.

The RCPD, however, “found the officer’s actions to be justified and appropriate,” police spokesman Brendyn Medina told Al Jazeera.

According to local Native American leaders, the cases represent an uptick in hate crimes against the Native community in Rapid City, which borders Lakota territory. The situation has gotten so bad that Poor Bear told Al Jazeera he’s “afraid personally to come” to the city.

An article published in the Rapid City Journal on Saturday, “Did Native students stand for national anthem?” increased tensions. Citing an unnamed suspect in the case, the article alleged that the Native American students angered guests in the VIP section when they did not stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Poor Bear said that to his knowledge the students all stood for the national anthem. During his heated interactions with the alleged assailants, the students’ patriotism was never questioned, though he said the assailants did order the students to “go back to the rez.”

Standing High, an attorney representing some of the students and their families, observed that with a group of that size, it was possible that some did not stand, despite reports to the contrary. But the question is beside the point, he said. “People here in Rapid are trying to confuse the issues and distract from the issue of child abuse,” Standing High added, referring to having to the beer, disc and racial epithets hurled at them.

Minnesota-based Lakota writer and activist Dana Lone Hill, whose sons and father live on the reservation near Rapid City, said, “We’re a sovereign nation within the United States. Even if the kids didn’t stand — which there’s no proof of that — they didn’t have to. We have our own flag, our own song. They are citizens of the Oglala Lakota Nation.”

After widespread criticism on social media, The Rapid City Journal on Monday issued an apology in which it acknowledged the article could be interpreted as victim blaming.

“To some, the headline signified that there was a justification for the harassment of Native American students at the Rush hockey game on Saturday, Jan 24. This was not our intent,” said Journal editor Bart Pfankuch. “There is no justification for such racist behavior. There can never be any justification for the appalling way those students and their chaperons were treated at the game.”  

Native American activists have credited community members’ use of social media with drawing increased attention to the students’ case and the article. The Twitter campaign #NativeLivesMatter, which they modeled after the #BlackLivesMatter campaign launched after a series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers last year, was particularly effective.

The hashtag helped the Lakota to focus discourse surrounding the students’ case on the routine violence and racism Native Americans experience each day.

According to Standing High, the community members had a significant victory when their use of social media and the ensuing online discussion prompted debate among Natives and non-Natives.

“It’s a perfect example of how today’s media has given a stronger voice to those who haven’t been heard previously,” he said.

Karin Eagle, a Native American rights advocate and journalist, said social media has empowered the Native community, helped them raise their voices and coordinate with other Native Americans across the country on initiatives to strengthen their communities.

“The Internet has opened the world a bit more. People are communicating across the country, giving each other the courage and encouragement to say, ‘This has never been right. I’m willing to say it now.’” 

The Rapid City Journal’s public apology for its article on the student’s case is one example of the power of social media, said Standing High.

“It’s a sign of the times, that there are new ways to handle these issues," he said. "The modern-day weapon is the mind that all of us as humans have.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter