Systemic Discrimination in South Dakota

15 Jun 2020

There is a systemic lack of American Indian representatives in businesses and government agencies across South Dakota. For examples, the South Dakota Board of Regents has no American Indians and less than 1% of university faculty in our state are American Indians, even though 11.6% of state residents under 20 years of age are American Indians. 

Even education boards that by name should be comprised of American Indians often are not. The South Dakota Indian Education Advisory Council members, for instance, are 40% White Americans. Consider that fact: an advisory council on Indian education in a state with extreme educational disparities between American Indian students and all other students, only has a 60% majority of American Indian members! An American Indian advisory council should be comprised of American Indians, just as a Lutheran advisory council should be comprised of Lutherans. 

Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors (MOA), an organization in Rapid City that uses a Lakota name and presents itself as comprised of “Native and non-Native community leaders who share amongst one another a desire—and personal responsibility—to live by example so that systemic change through leadership can take root in our community,” is not registered as a business in South Dakota and its executive director is a White American. MOA apparently believes that systemic change must have a White American as its leader.  

Earlier this year, according to the Associated Press, the state of South Dakota “agreed to pay $350,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging the state Department of Social Services discriminated against American Indian job applicants,” according to the Associated Press. The lawsuit arose when Cedric Goodman, an Oglala Sioux Tribe citizen, applied for a DSS job as an employment specialist in Pine Ridge. He met the qualifications, and was one of six interviewees for the job, five of whom were American Indians. 

Then, on December 12, 2010, according to the Associated Press, “the job posting was canceled and none of those interviewed were offered the job. The next day, a new vacancy for an employment specialist was posted and the department hired a white woman for the job who had just graduated from college and whose work history had not been in a related field.” 

Over a 25-month period from 2010 to 2012, DSS posted 18 specialist positions and filled 12 of them. Though 40% of the applicants were American Indians, only one of the 12 hirees was American Indian. The lawsuit alleged that “some of the vacancies went unfilled and were closed despite qualified Native American applicants.”

Cedric Goodman died in 2019, so his estate was awarded $10,000 of the $350,000 settlement. The remainder of the settlement is to be divided equally among the 60 American Indians who applied for specialist positions between 2007 and 2013, but were not hired. DSS admitted no wrongdoing.

These are a few examples of systemic discrimination against American Indians. Nearly 10% of South Dakota residents are American Indians. To be proportionally represented, American Indians should comprise around 10% of appointed positions, board members and employees of businesses, institutions, and our state government and its departments. There are qualified American Indians for positions, but because of systemic discrimination, American Indians rarely get opportunities to serve in leadership roles. 

Obviously, organizations that claim to be opposed to systemic discrimination should be especially committed to proportional representation of American Indians. This is one reason why American Indian advisory boards should be comprised of American Indians. White Americans and other non-American Indians serving on American Indian advisory boards should step down and demand that their positions be filled by qualified American Indians. 

Also, American Indians must be in leadership positions of organizations that claim to speak on behalf of American Indians. A leadership position is the highest paid employee, the CEO, the owner or the person with ultimate decision-making authority within an organization. Non-Indians speaking on behalf of American Indians are perpetuating the systemic discrimination against American Indians that is endemic in South Dakota. 

Ending systemic discrimination is necessarily disruptive of the status quo. It will require fundamental changes in the usual way of making decisions and conducting business. Four weeks ago, this endeavor felt impractical. But since then, NASCAR banned the confederate flag at its events, statues of confederate generals and Christopher Columbus have been toppled by protestors, U.S. military leadership has advocated that bases named after racists and traitors be renamed, and some cities have passed measures to stop police brutality, especially with regard to Black Americans. 

Apparently the majority of Americans are now ready to abolish the old discriminatory way of doing things. Therefore, now is the time to at least abolish systemic discrimination in South Dakota.


(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)

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