February 2, 2002

Indians urged to fight racism


Author: James Hagengruber
Billings Gazette Staff Writer

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Fight racism by studying hard and speaking up, former vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke told about 600 local American Indian students attending a conference in Billings on Wednesday.

“There is no social-change fairy,” said LaDuke, an Ojibwa from Minnesota. “There is only change made by the hands of individuals.”

LaDuke also spoke out against the bickering that occurs inside Indian Country, saying the “fighting over crumbs” keeps tribes from developing a unified voice.

“Tribal politicians are often too busy arguing with each other to push for better health care, environmental protection and education,” she told the crowd at the Montana Convention Center.

LaDuke, a human rights advocate and Harvard graduate who was Ralph Nader’s vice presidential candidate in the 2000 election, was keynote speaker at Career Institute 2002, organized by the School to Work Program at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, with help from Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer.

Attending were students and educators from schools on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, as well as schools in Colstrip, Hardin and Billings.

Workshops during the two-day event ranged from grant writing to racism to honoring war veterans. John Youngbear, one of the organizers, said the focus was on equipping students with practical solutions.

“We talk and talk and nothing ever happens,” Youngbear said. “Hopefully this will give some answers.”

Catherine Whiteman, a student at the Lame Deer Alternative Learning Center, said she was impressed by the frank discussions of racism and tribal infighting. Discussing these topics will help students avoid them, she said.

“It’s brave of LaDuke to bring it up,” Whiteman said. “She’s right.”

Artist and Gazette columnist John Potter worked with LaDuke during the workshop titled “Native vs. Natives.”

Potter, an Ojibwa from northern Wisconsin, said the infighting is corrosive to individuals and families. One of the more common forms is full-blooded tribal members picking on those with some white ancestry.

“It’s a subject that Indian people don’t want to face most of the time,” Potter said. “We natives have contracted the disease of racism from our conquerors and we have little resistance to it. … We need to get over this.”

Although the problems are deep, change is occurring on reservations, participants said. A major factor has been the rise of tribal colleges in the past 20 years, which has created new opportunities for thousands of American Indians.

Whiteman said she’s beginning to notice a difference in Lame Deer, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. More people have college degrees, she said. “Since we’ve become more educated, our reservation has become better.”

With education, people are more likely to work for change, Whiteman said. While she was taking a summer school class at Billings Senior High, Whiteman spoke out against a teacher’s reading selection.

The books, she said, all seemed to put down minorities. The teacher refused to listen, but another teacher stepped in and pushed for changes in the literature class.

“It got done. I was surprised,” Whiteman said. “Speak out and you’ll be heard.”

One of Whiteman’s friends, Aubrey Ridge Bear, of Lame Deer, said students continue to have hope. “We need to be educated as people so we can go out there and bring change.”

LaDuke encouraged the students to seek the highest educational degree possible, but also warned against forgetting traditional values.

She told the students to consider careers in the nonprofit sector and to use their backgrounds to help formulate compassionate public policy.

“There are many choices open,” she said. “Sometimes the path is not well-drawn. Sometimes you have to make the path.”

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.


James Hagengruber can be reached at 657-1232 or at

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