Tim Giago: Indians lost in race relations debate

As most of us knew from the very beginning of this political season when a Black man and a White woman entered the final leg of the presidential contest, gender and race would also enter the arena.

Since day one Sen. Hillary Clinton has taken her lumps for being a woman. Sen. Barack Obama started to get his lumps last week on the heels of the comments made by his pastor Jeremiah Wright. But in the case of Obama, the Republicans chose to attack him more for what they called his lack of patriotism rather than his race. Attacking him for his race would have been much too blatant and would have been seen as overt racism.

However, the comments by the Rev. Wright about America really steamed Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and the Glen Beck of talk radio. Of the attacks on the twin towers on September 11, 2001, Wright said it was the “Chickens coming home to roost.” Instead of “God Bless America,” Rev. Wright said it should be, “God Damn America.” Now that is like waving the red flag of anti-patriotism in the faces of the conservative talks show hosts.

Their main despair was if Barack Obama sat in the pews of this church and heard these attacks upon America, which he admitted doing, why didn’t he leave the church? Or, according to many white Americans, why didn’t he cast the Rev. Wright out of his life?

The gender thing started early in Sen. Clinton’s campaign. For instance, have you ever heard anyone on television or radio comment on the suit worn by Obama or about his hair style? There have been plenty of comments about the clothing worn by Sen. Clinton and about her hair styles. In fact when she wore a yellow pants suit it was called her “Bumble Bee” outfit by Ingrahams. Does this say something about bringing gender into the race?

Let’s get back to the issue of race. Americans, black and white, seem to think that racial discrimination only involves African Americans. Even in his speech to dispel doubts about his connections to the Rev. Wright, Obama talked about Hispanics and Asian Americans, but he did not mention American Indians.

When it comes to race relations, Native Americans are the invisible people. Any Indian living in North or South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Arizona or even Washington, has felt the pain and the shame of racial prejudice. It has come in the school yard, in the search for decent housing, in restaurants and department stores. When I was publisher of Indian Country Today, the paper covered the story of an Indian man suspected of shoplifting at a department store in Rapid City and how he was wrestled to the floor and humiliated by the store’s security only to find out that not only was he not shoplifting, he was also a minister in the Episcopal Church. By reporting this story my newspaper lost a very valuable advertiser. The local daily did not carry the story.

There are still many issues about race that arise nearly every week in the states I mentioned involving Indians and Whites. Several school districts in South Dakota have taken the issue to court and won. The ACLU has stood up for the rights of the Indian people across America because the state and federal courts have often been so lopsided in dealing justice to Native Americans. In many Western states there is a dual system of justice when it involves Indians.

But even in the face of bigotry and discrimination, Native Americans have continued to be among the most loyal and patriotic of any ethnic group. According to The American Legion Magazine, 181,000 Indians have served in America’s wars. 21,947 American Indians and Alaska natives are now on active duty. 3,868 American Indians and Alaska natives are currently deployed in combat zones. 47 American Indians and Alaska natives have been killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan since the war on terror began.

For several days last year our local daily newspaper printed the names of individuals with outstanding arrest warrants. Starting with A and running to Z the daily list was tedious, but it was noted immediately by nearly every Native American reading that newspaper that the vast majority of the names listed each day were those of Native Americans. This brings up the question: Are all Native Americans prone to criminal acts or is there an awful lot of profiling going on here? Although Indians make up only 10 percent of South Dakota’s population, nearly 33 percent incarcerated in the South Dakota State Prison are Native Americans.

I have no doubt that if either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is elected president there will be a solid review of race relations in America. I only hope that they also include the long history of racial prejudice and discrimination against America’s smallest minority, the American Indian.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

More Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Disenfranchising the Oglala Lakota people (3/10)
Tim Giago: Paying tribute to Harold Iron Shield (2/27)
Tim Giago: No celebrating at Pine Ridge Reservation (2/25)
Tim Giago: Apology of no use for Native Americans (2/18)
Tim Giago: The education of Jerry Reynolds (2/11)
Tim Giago: In honor of Carole Anne Heart (2/4)
Tim Giago: Claiming Indian status to get ahead (1/28)
Tim Giago: Wounded Knee book a must read (1/21)
Tim Giago: Sen. Barack Obama and the 'R-Word' (1/14)
Tim Giago: The medicine of Michael Haney (1/7)