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Native Sun News: Health workers come together for race relations

The following story was written and reported by Richie Richards, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Members of a group of Regional Health, Sioux San and Indian Health Service employees hike near Bear Butte State Park during an outing to build better relationships following a racist Facebook posting by a former Regional employee.

Regional and IHS employees unite
By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY –– When former-Regional Health nurse, Ryane Oliva, had a video posted on social media of her saying, “Indians f***ing suck! They suck,” little did she know that her immediate firing would have such a positive impact on Rapid City race relations.

This video was posted on Friday, May 8 and by the afternoon of Monday, May 11; Oliva was made an example of in a very public firing.

In a statement issued by CEO Brent Phillips, who said at the time, “Regional Health has a zero tolerance policy regarding this type of behavior by its caregivers inside or outside the workplace. We will not stand for any type of racism or bigotry on the part of our caregivers or physicians.”

This public acknowledgment of the situation at Regional Health sent shock waves through the many satellite clinics of Regional Health, as well as the Native and non-Native communities in the Black Hills area.

Brent Phillips took a stand against racism in Rapid City in which many business leaders have turned a blind eye to over the years.

In July, Phillips approached Native Sun News with an idea of bringing together IHS employees from Rosebud, Pine Ridge, and Rapid City to join with Regional Health staff for a 5-day shared-learning experience with an emphasis on race relations.

Native Sun News, by personal invitation from Mr. Phillips, was the only media outlet to take part in this traveling seminar as a reward for an article published in the “Best of the Dakotas 2015” weekly newspaper about the nurse firing.

From Aug. 13-17, the Chief Executive Officer of Regional Health made good on his promise of his commitment to a better Rapid City when he invited 48 individuals from IHS hospitals and Regional Health for the En Route Lakota Land & Identities Seminar.

This traveling seminar visited local Lakota sacred sites and historical locations. The class instructors were Dr. Craig Howe of the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS), Peri Strain, Ann Robertson, Ed.D. and Janet Fleming-Marting. Mabel Picotte contributed as an assistant instructor.

Each morning at 7:30, the 50 invited guests would meet in the Central High School parking lot for a morning circle and wokiksuye (to have a remembrance of) and would greet each person with a traditional Lakota greeting of anpetu waste’ or hihanni waste’ (good day or good morning in Lakota).

During the first leg of the trip, which ended in Fort Robinson, Neb., the seminar traveled to Buffalo Gap (Pte Tatiyopa) and the site where Wesley Bad Heart Bull was murdered outside of a local bar by a white Air Force veteran, Darld Schmitz in Feb., 1973. This event led to the Custer riots and eventual Wounded Knee Occupation.

As part of the lessons, students were introduced to the capitals and reservation names of the Oceti Sakowin (formerly Sioux Nation), Lakota kinship names, counting to ten in Lakota, concept of Mitakuye Oyasin (all my relations) and several idealisms and Lakota values concepts.

The chartered bus tour then traveled to Wind Cave (Wisun Niya) while discussing the Lakota emergence narrative. At Wind Cave, the seminar students critiqued the visitor center and evaluated the Lakota presence within the text and displays.

After Wind Cave, the seminar visited Fort Robinson where the great war chief Crazy Horse was killed. Fort Robinson is a State Park in Nebraska currently. IHS and Regional health care workers could be seen discussing the mysterious circumstances of the death of Crazy Horse and were presented 12 accounts in their course packet readings.

Day two of the traveling classroom included visits to Bear Butte (Mato Paha) and Reynold’s Prairie (Pe Sla). This was an emotional day for many on the bus tour. It was at Bear Butte where students learned of the spiritual significance of the “church made by the hands of god”, as one person put it.

At Pe Sla, the class was met by Roger Broer (Oglala Lakota) of Roger Broer Studio in Hill City who introduced the visitors to the Pe Sla site, which is now privately owned. Broer is an accomplished artist whose art can be found at local shows as well the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Northern Plains Indian Art Market in Sioux Falls.

One non-Native student who could be seen crying, said, “It was so peaceful up there. There is something there that I’ve never felt before”, while another asked, “What happened to me up there? I couldn’t stop crying for some reason.”

On day three (anpetu yamni), Director Mary Maxon and Curator Ashley Pourier of the Red Cloud Heritage Center greeted the health care workers and presented information about Red Cloud Indian School and the Art Show.

Pourier discussed her decision to leave the reservation to pursue her education at Carthage College in Wisconsin and the importance of returning home to family. “When I went to school here (Red Cloud), they didn’t have Lakota language and now they do. I think that’s great.”

Leaving Red Cloud, students watched a video about both the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973. The video offered commentary from activists and residents of the time period.

Dr. Howe provided a descriptive, historical account of the Massacre site while the bus parked near the ravine many Lakota fled to on January, 29, 1890. Dr. Howe’s description left many in the bus speechless as they watched the spirit victims of the four Hotchkiss M1875 Mountain Guns running for the ravine.

Corey Yellow Boy of Oglala Lakota College joined the bus for wokiksuye after day three. He gave insight into his traditional Lakota upbringing and encouraged students to “Yell your name out loud” in order to call their spirit back from the places they had visited along the bus tour.

On Sunday, Aug. 16, the traveling classroom went to Devil’s Tower (Mato Tipila) for a hike and history lesson on place names. “If it was a sacred site to Native Americans, they usually associated it with the devil,” Dr. Howe told the class.

After a hike around the tower, students gathered in groups to discuss verbiage in the text along the trail and in the visitor center. On the trail, one student noticed a sign which said, “American Indian Peoples” and how that stood out as odd.

By Day 5, a strong bond formed amongst the health care workers. Throughout the process, the invited guests changed seats several times a day. This gave each person an opportunity to sit by each other.

The traveling seminar ended with a special visit to Dr. Craig Howe’s property east of Martin. “Wing Springs” is a work-in-progress and will eventually be a learning center, library, meeting space, and place for visiting scholars to learn and teach.

It was a tragic and unfortunate event which brought these participants together. Ryane Oliva (the nurse fired in May) did not have access to the cultural knowledge, spiritual practices, historical contexts, place name relations, and contemporary perspective or she may not have said Indians “suck.” Oliva, herself, has been a victim and by product of ignorance and the systemic racism which excludes traditional indigenous knowledge and local tribal information from our schools in South Dakota and other states. Her position at Regional Health required her to be respectful towards a culture she knew little about.

As a business leader Phillips has set a precedent for other corporations and businesses to follow. He said, “Health care is a calling, a duty, an opportunity to positively impact the lives of those around us. In order to help people in their greatest times of need we must understand their culture, beliefs, fears and desires. We must all work together, build bridges, find common ground and create a brighter future for ourselves and our children. Every one of us has a responsibility to help improve our community; this change begins with our attitudes and our actions. Education is the pathway to eliminating ignorance and intolerance.”

“My desire is for all 48 caregivers who participated in this journey - from Sioux San, Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Regional Health - to speak with their families, neighbors and co-workers about this life changing experience. Little by little, with real commitment and passion we will transform our community into a ‘we’ centered one.”

“My plea to all participants is to value this gift of education and enlightenment. Share it widely, be grateful for what you have and help those around you. Step outside of your comfort zone and uplift your brothers and sisters in their time of need. Remember we are anxiously engaged in a great cause. Together we have the ability to change lives and our community. Now let’s get going, we have much to do!”

Like many of the great Lakota chiefs of the past, Phillips has used his role to lead his camp of 4,700 Regional Health employees down a path of strength, courage dignity and respect. His use of education to combat the communal enemy of ignorance is being recognized by many.

(Contact Richie Richards at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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