Mayday Mayday Mayday

Who hasn't heard the Mayday distress call on the radio or television, or in a movie theater? It is a distinct verbal cue that immediately signals an emergency is happening right now. 

“Mayday” was formally adopted as an international distress call at the International Radiotelegraph Convention of Washington, DC, in 1927. Article 19 of the General Regulations ratified at the convention stated that all of the rules that applied to the existing distress signal (which was then and still is now, dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot, repeated three times) would also apply to the new distress call, which “consists of the spoken expression MAYDAY (corresponding to the French pronunciation of the expression “m'aider”).”

As President Biden said in his inauguration speech earlier this year: “This is a time of testing. We face an attack on democracy and on truth. A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism.  A climate in crisis. America's role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with the gravest of responsibilities. Now we must step up. All of us.”

He was metaphorically pleading: M'aider! Help me! No one of us, not even the President of the United States, can solve all these problems alone. 

The distress which is the title of this essay is for the interrelated emergencies of a growing inequity and an ongoing systemic racism, particularly in South Dakota and against American Indians. It is a call to action, especially for those whose privileged positions perpetuate racism and contribute to the disparities between the treatment of American Indians and non-Indians in our state.

But first, let's examine another May Day, one spelled as two words, tied to the first day of the fifth month of the Gregorian calendar. It has springtime and fertility roots that reach back over two thousand years. Today, in parts of the United States, May Baskets full of goodies are left anonymously at the doorsteps of sweethearts. 

May Day is also associated with workers' rights going back to 1856, when Australian stonemasons demanded an 8-hour work day. Their actions eventually led, in the US, to an 1884 decision by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions to declare May 1, 1886, as the date to implement the 8-hour work day across the country. A general nationwide strike was called, and its focal point was a huge strike and demonstration in Chicago that ended in Haymarket Square on May 4 with a bomb blast that killed a policeman, and instigated gunfire between the police and the protestors, which resulted in additional deaths on both sides. Four labor supporters were convicted of the bombing and were hanged on November 11, 1887.

These men are viewed as martyrs. Their deaths led to the first International Workers Day on May 1, 1890, to demonstrate for an 8-hour work day. In 1894, the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, signed a law establishing Labor Day as the first Monday in September, thereby distancing it from the radical roots of International Workers Day. In 1958, the US established May 1 as Loyalty Day, a legal holiday, and in 1961, also proclaimed May 1 as Law Day, a day for citizens to rededicate themselves to the “ideals of equality and justice under law in their relations with each other and with other countries.”   

Therefore, this beginning week of May is an appropriate time to examine the insidious effects of systemic racism against American Indians in South Dakota, and to call for widespread, pervasive changes. Some of these changes will take time, but others can be implemented immediately in response to the ongoing distress. 

Typically, in South Dakota, issues relating to American Indians follow this general trajectory: Soon after an issue is brought to the public's attention, non-Natives align themselves with a Native person (or organization) who is advocating that the issue be addressed and resolved. Due to the pernicious ramifications of systemic racism, rarely is there a critical mass of Native persons or Native-led organizations involved. If the advocacy fails to gain traction, the non-Natives abandon the issue. But if it does gain traction, then the non-Natives usurp the leadership roles and position themselves as the gatekeepers of the advocacy, thereby pushing the American Indians into non-essential supporting roles. 

These gatekeepers claim to have good intentions to resolve the issue equitably and without discrimination. Since they usually are public figures, at least locally, they draw on their reputations and personal relationships to gain access to leadership of the mainstream side of the issue. 

Mainstream leadership generally prefers to work with these gatekeepers instead of with American Indians. The gatekeepers are more familiar to them than are the American Indians, and the gatekeepers rarely advocate for systemic change of the mainstream because, after all, they want to protect and perpetuate their gatekeeping privileges.  It is an interdependent cycle of incentives for both the mainstream leadership and the gatekeepers to work together to maintain the status quo. 

The result is systemic racism that benefits the gatekeepers and the mainstream leadership and their organizations and institutions. The mainstream entities can wring their hands in public and talk about all the changes they will make to address the issue; and the gatekeepers can shake their fingers at the mainstream entities and loudly advocate for changes. But in the end, both sides benefit by the status quo remaining unchanged. 

The losers in this insidious cycle are American Indians. They are pushed out of leadership roles by the gatekeepers, and are not invited to the decision-making tables by the mainstream leadership. American Indians are relegated to being assistants to the gatekeepers, and as such, are interchangeable, silent and invisible. The gatekeepers will keep their American Indian “assistants” around for external optics, but they will distance themselves from them as soon as they can without negatively impacting their gatekeeping privileges and prestige. 

Now is the time for mainstream leadership in South Dakota organizations and institutions to make their employees, board members, and suppliers reflective of the diversity in our state. The stale mantra of “this is the way we have always done it” should be seen for what it is: a way to perpetuate systemic inequity. 

Now is the time for gatekeepers to make a decision to either perpetuate the status quo of systemic discrimination or step aside and demand that every leadership position that deals with American Indian issues be filled by an American Indian.  

And now is the time for American Indian organizations to become strategic in every economic decision. These organizations must identify and hire qualified American Indian leaders and suppliers. 

The growing inequity and systemic racism are alarming. “It is a time for boldness,” President Biden said, “for there is so much to do. And, this is certain. We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion?”

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!