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As part of Mainstreet Radio series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country,” MPR’s Dan Gunderson reports on the struggles of American Indians, with the voices of people who say their rights, and complaints, are ignored.

Today, many American Indians live in two worlds. Off the reservation they are guaranteed all the rights of a U.S. citizen. On the reservation, those federal rights disappear, replaced by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, enforced by tribal governments. Many Indian people in Minnesota and the Dakotas say they've come to expect injustice both on and off the reservation.

[NOTE: Listeners should be warned this is an issue which provokes strong language]

This is part one of eight-part series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country."

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2001 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Radio - Large Market - Continuing Coverage category

2001 Minnesota AP Award, Best in Show - Radio Class III category

2001 PRNDI Award, second place in Division A - Series category

2002 RTNDA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / News Series category


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DAN GUNDERSON: The stories begin as a trickle, but spend some time in Indian country and they become a torrent. From tribal leaders to schoolchildren, attorneys to convicted criminals, stories about being treated differently.


John Rock, Jr. likes to spend evenings shooting pool with friends in his garage. Between shots, he peers out the window. Just checking, he says, for signs of the man he claims harasses him nearly every day. It started in a dispute over how snow was cleared from an alley. Rock says when he saw his neighbor making obscene gestures, he walked across the yard to confront him.

JOHN ROCK JR.: And he goes, get off my property, you [BLEEP] prairie nigger. And he kept hollering and hollering some more. He started teasing me like, I'm going to go to jail. You're going to [BLEEP] go to jail, you half breed.

DAN GUNDERSON: Rock says he challenged the man to a fight, but only words were exchanged. Police were called and Rock was charged with trespassing. He says the harassment continues, but he's not getting the help he wants from police. He says he's complained directly to the chief of police.

JOHN ROCK JR.: And he told me to be a bigger man and to look the other way, and that he was going to do something, look into it.

DAN GUNDERSON: Police say the case is ongoing. They deny Rock is treated differently than any other citizen. The neighbor did not respond to requests for an interview. John Rock has filed a complaint with the Minnesota Human Rights Department.

While John Rock says police ignored his complaints, many Indians say they get too much attention from police. These people have all filed complaints with the Human Rights Department, alleging police brutality.

SPEAKER 1: He threw me on a car and he kept on choking me.

SPEAKER 2: He put my hands behind my back and he pulled my hair and said, you're going to listen to me?

SPEAKER 3: He would get out and he'll tell us, put our hands up on the cop car. Otherwise, he'd tell us to get in the cop car, and he'll search us. Then he'll let us go.

SPEAKER 4: And he slammed my face in the hood, and I start bleeding right away. And I turn my head, and he hit my head again.

DAN GUNDERSON: In many cases, such allegations by American Indians are dismissed as complaints of troublemakers. Chances are slim their complaints will be investigated. Records show the Minnesota Human Rights Department investigates fewer than 5% of complaints filed by American Indians. Officials say the agency is hamstrung by a lack of resources and often lacks jurisdiction.

County arrest statistics show in some Northern Minnesota counties, American Indians are a minority of the population, but make up a majority of those arrested and jailed. Law enforcement officials say that simply reflects the fact American Indians commit more of the crime.

Allegations against law enforcement for racial profiling or abuse are difficult to investigate. But White Earth Tribal judge Anita Fineday says the complaints are so common, she started collecting sworn affidavits.

ANITA FINEDAY: It's a class action lawsuit waiting to happen. I mean there are clearly violations of federal law. Clearly, people are receiving law enforcement services based on the perceptions as to whether they are Indian or non-Indian.

WARREN RETHWITSCH: Totally wrong, totally false.

DAN GUNDERSON: Warren Rethwisch is Sheriff of Becker county, which encompasses part of the White Earth Reservation.

WARREN RETHWITSCH: It's usually the 1% of the population that seems to have the problem with law enforcement. And probably some of those reasons why is they're involved in some illegal activities. And when they get caught, they're the first ones to scream that they're being picked on.

CAROLYN ENGEBRETSON: I just say, maybe we're going to have to get sued a few times.

DAN GUNDERSON: Becker County commissioner Carolyn Engebretson says she believes American Indians in her county are treated differently by law enforcement.

CAROLYN ENGEBRETSON: And it's going to have to cost us some money, and maybe that's what it's going to take, and then I encourage people to do it.

DAN GUNDERSON: Engebretson says she is troubled by the vast chasm that still seems to exist between white and Indian people in Northern Minnesota. She vividly recalls a conversation while campaigning last fall near the reservation.

CAROLYN ENGEBRETSON: One had actually suggested that we put barbed wire fences up and keep them inside. And I said, that's concentration camps. That's what you want? Well, that's good enough. Rah, rah, rah. It was horrifying. I was just sick to my stomach.

DAN GUNDERSON: While such jarring stories are not uncommon, many American Indians say the subtle daily incidents of racism, which violate no laws, take a greater toll.

ROBERT SHIMEK: They act like you're invisible. They look down or they look to the side.

DAN GUNDERSON: Robert Shimek is an environmental activist who lives near Bemidji. He says every time he walks down the street, he's reminded he's an outcast. He recalls a day this winter when a white teenage girl crawled over a large snow bank rather than pass him in an alley. Shimek says he's come to accept such responses as a fact of life.

ROBERT SHIMEK: Would it have done me any good to stop and ask her, you didn't have to do that. You don't have to be afraid of me. I'm OK. Would it have done any good? I don't know.

DAN GUNDERSON: Shimek says, challenging such incidents can be risky. He says he was harassed and threatened after speaking out about racism in a local school. There are everyday incidents reported in many schools. A young Indian student told he must cut his hair to be on a sports team. Long hair has a powerful spiritual significance for American Indians. Many Indian students say they are subjected to racial epithets in classrooms and hallways.

One of the most volatile cases involves the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Indian students want the school to stop using the Fighting Sioux nickname for sports teams. As a result of that debate, Indian students say they are harassed and threatened on a daily basis. The US Education Department's Civil Rights Division is currently investigating those complaints.


DAN GUNDERSON: As people mill about UND Student Union, an elder leads a group of nicknamed protesters in prayer. A white student walking by curses the group under his breath. When questioned, he hurries into the crowd. UND student, Waste'Win Young says she hears those comments every day. Her car has been vandalized and she says she'll no longer walk across campus alone. But she takes a pragmatic view of the situation.

WASTE'WIN YOUNG: Native American people are the largest minority group in North Dakota, and this is just like the Mississippi of the North. And so right now, we just have to put up with these racist remarks because they're ignorant. We have to understand that they're ignorant and they don't know any better.

DAN GUNDERSON: Many American Indians don't share that attitude. Generations of bad land deals, boarding schools, and racist comments lead many to alcohol, drugs, and other self-destructive behavior. Growing up on the reservation, White Earth Tribal chairman Doyle Turner saw the bitterness passed from generation to generation. He says he understands why he believes his wife was recently a target of racial profiling in a traffic stop. But he says he's determined to avoid becoming bitter.

DOYLE TURNER: My parents and their parents and their parents died waiting for fairness to happen. I really don't know the mindset of a society that won't come back and fix things that have gone awry. It puzzles me. It makes me reach into places I don't want to go. OK.

DAN GUNDERSON: Turner says the solution is not angrily demanding justice, but educating young people and building tribal economic power. He says, change will not come quickly but he's encouraged by a groundswell of young American Indians determined to seek the justice that eluded previous generations. Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio, Moorhead.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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