By Russell Rowland
About two years ago, I gave a talk at the Pictograph Caves just outside Billings. Inspired by the Native American pictographs that are the main feature of the site, I focused on a subject that had become something of an obsession since I returned to Montana 10 years ago, which is the treatment of the Native Americans in our state.
I grew up in Montana, but I had been gone for 25 years when I returned. I moved from San Francisco, and I was stunned to find that people still talked very openly about Native Americans as if they are all lazy, drunk and a drain on our economy.
Part of the reason this was so shocking, of course, was that I came from the cradle of political correctness, where any racist statement was met with an immediate scowl. San Francisco also has the distinction of having such a diverse population that, after living there for 12 years, I really didn’t think about people’s color. There are practically as many people of color in the city as there are whites, so if you do have racist tendencies, it wouldn’t be an easy place to live a comfortable life.
So my talk that day centered on an idea that I’ve been kicking around since I moved back, that in order to find some healing in the community over these issues, it might be interesting to start a series of discussions where people would have the opportunity to discuss whatever barriers to progress still exist.
It just so happened that a Native American writer named Adrian Jawort attended my talk in order to write about it for The Billings Outpost. Adrian approached me afterward, and mentioned that he really liked the idea of these community discussions.
From that simple conversation, the Native American Race Relations and Healing Lecture Series was born. We started with a day-long symposium, where we held three panels, one to review the past in an objective way, to present the facts of how we got to this place. The second panel focused on the current issues—things that need to be addressed. And the third panel discussed possibilities for the future.
From the beginning, Adrian and I have been determined to keep these discussions solutions-oriented, so that they don’t become a forum where people simply vent their grievances.
We wanted to focus more on the fact that people don’t realize how much of this past still affects the present, in ways that most people have become so accustomed to that they don’t think twice about it.
A recent example of this happened right here in Billings when a local radio DJ suggested that Native American teams should have their own basketball tournaments, then went on to defend himself as many people do by explaining that he’s not a racist, but only trying to solve an obvious problem, a common theme in our current political climate.
That’s another reason I was hoping our lecture series might help raise some awareness about how deeply embedded this issues have become. I think this guy honestly believed he was trying to be helpful, but attitudes toward Native Americans have become so deeply embedded that people are blind to how dismissive they can be.
So for the past year and a half, we have been fortunate enough to host some excellent speakers, including former Northern Cheyenne Tribal Chairman John Robinson; MSU-Billings Native Outreach Director Reno Charette, who gave a powerful presentation on human trafficking in the Native community; Meg Singer from the ACLU, who talked about how her organization is doing what it can to educate the public; and Marci McLean-Pollock from Western Native Voices, an organization devoted to helping Natives get registered to vote, among other things.
We’ve drawn a steady crowd at these events, which are held at the Billings Public Library, and when we held our second day-long symposium in November, the attendance was very encouraging, enough so that we decided to expand our horizons and host symposiums in other Montana towns.
We applied for a grant from Humanities Montana, and were thrilled to obtain funding to put on the first Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium in Missoula. It is scheduled for April 1 at the Native American Studies Building on the University of Montana campus.
This event will start at 10 a.m. and will feature two panels, the first focusing on tribal sovereignty, with speakers Adrian Jawort, John Robinson and Meg Singer.
The second panel will discuss some of the hot topics of the day, including the events at Standing Rock, the issue of blood quantum, and the efforts to keep Native American languages alive. This panel will feature Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, Robert Hall, Francis Bauer and April Youpee-Roll.