Saturday, May 9, 2015

How I Learned Racism

I learned about racism at an early age in a Red and White World living on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in north-central South Dakota when I was five, six, seven and shortly after my eighth birthday, we moved to Edgerton, Minnesota.

I have been a gym rat since I was old enough to dribble a basketball because my father coached high school basketball until I was ten years old living in Edgerton.

Here is a photograph when I was five with my Dad's A Squad and I was the mascot for the McLaughlin Mighty Midgets:

Click on the image to make it larger:

When Dad found out he was not going to be returning to coach and teach in his hometown of White, South Dakota, he took the job as a high school teacher and assistant football coach, track and cross country and A Squad basketball coach. We were moving to town number five and I was five years old! We packed up the trailer house and moved three hundred miles to the reservation.

Since we knew we were moving and McLaughlin did not have kindergarten, I went to kindergarten in White when I was four. Since I was too young to go to first grade, I had to wait a year before I started school. Living on the reservation taught me many lessons about how the Sioux Indians were being systematically discriminated against.

Dad was building an athletic program and many Indians were excellent athletes and thrived under his tutelage. Art Taken Alive (number 30 in this picture) was probably the best of the group that came along in the next two years following this year.

I learned tolerance, acceptance, understanding and bigotry from the white population in McLaughlin.

Our family was growing and halfway through our second year in McLaughlin we bought a new trailer house that had an extension to double the space of our living room and faced the street where we watched in fear one night as a drunken Indian murder his wife with a bottle! I will never forget the fear we experienced that night.

My dad had to be hospitalized in the middle of a basketball season for several days with pneumonia. One of his players, Willard Male Bear ran home several miles after school one day, got a quarter and ran back. He went to the local pharmacy, bought a get-well card for his coach, brought it up to the hospital and the nurse in charge would not let him into the hospital to give Dad the card.

However, she did come to the high school basketball game that night, cheer on the Midgets and Willard had a great game! That was simply the way it was done on the Res'!

The last year we lived in McLaughlin, one Saturday morning after a basketball game the night before, he held my hand and we walked up to the corner, took a right and walked to the Post Office on the other end of the block. Partway down the street was the City Hall, and Police Station. As we neared the building several of the "Good Old Boys" were standing outside with an effigy of my father hanging in front of them! Dad told me not to look at it and we walked right on by. Needless to say, we took a different route home!

The Chief of Police was one of them, and he had a racket going! Our trailers were on the back half of the main highway and Main Street along with a small hotel, large warehouse and large brick church at the other end of the block. He owned everything but the church land.

He would make wine in the basement of his warehouse, sell it to the Indians on Friday to get them drunk and disorderly, throw them in jail on a Friday night and have them sweep Main Street on Saturday morning and then release them. It was probably the only night of the week many of the Indians had a dry bed to sleep on and a roof over their head. 

My dad's contract was not renewed for the fourth year because he asked for a $500 raise to make his salary commensurate with his contemporaries in the area, to bring it to $6,000. Remember, he was building a program and beginning to see some success as his mile relay team won the state championship for the first time a state championship had been won by a McLaughlin team in any sport!

Here is a picture of his cross-country team. Notice the number of Indian kids on his squad:

Again, click on the image to make it larger:

I think you get my point about how my understanding started to develop about racism and the exploitation I saw at an early age. 

As we grew as a family, and Dad continued to get better jobs, in Edgerton, Minnesota, Sibley, Iowa and eventually Worthington I continued to learn about the benefits of diversity within our own household and school.

When we moved to Worthington, we had an apartment in the front half of our basement with full egress windows, large bedroom, and a large kitchen and living room area. Dad always had his athletes living in that apartment with the mistaken assumption he could keep an eye on them! He was only thirty-four when he took that job and should have remembered you cannot keep an eye on teenagers and their testosterone!

We had Willard Male Bear's younger brother, Duane Thundershield staying with us. We also had four young men from the Bahamas one year. One of them competed in the 100-yard dash and a relay for the Bahamas in the 1976 Olympics.

We had a young, black boxer from Iowa, Johnny Boutchee who took care of my little sisters after my accident. In 2002, I ran into him in a school in Mankato, Minnesota where he was a janitor. Of course he remembered Tammy and Mom sent him a copy of my "Lead Now" which I wrote a chapter in and Tammy's, "The White Album" which he enjoyed immensely after helping raise her for a good part of first three months after my accident!

We also had a Vietnam vet and two of my uncles, Ed Smith stayed with us for one year and his younger brother, Terry stayed with us for two years while he attended the junior college. Shortly after finishing his AA degree and my accident, Terry enlisted in the Air Force.

Now, for the real capper on my experience of living with diversity, I moved to Berkeley and learned all kinds of things I never would have learned had I stayed in Worthington or gone to Marshall for their program that specialized in helping students with disabilities transition into college life. I visited the school one day, talked to a counselor and asked her for "fair weather schools" and she gave me four schools in Arizona and three schools in California. That was how I got to Berkeley.

I tell people the second best experience in my life was moving to Berkeley. They ultimately ask, "What was the first?"

My reply is always, "Coming home!" I needed Berkeley at the time. However, I needed to go home more so I could watch my little brother, Chad grow up! I could not do that from that distance.

I am a strong believer in lifetime learning and try to practice it every day. With the diverse group of personal care attendants (PCA's) constantly coming through my apartment and helping me, I see a very wide variety of people. The diversity is incredible, and it is not always in a good way!

As always, I look forward to your comments.




Colleen said...

Racism is definitely a learned condition … reading your latest blog brings to mind so many events - spaces in time never to be forgotten.… Mike and Art Taken Alive's little brother playing Cowboys and Indians with their action figures on the living room floor of our trailer house. One day Mike wanted to be the Indian because Art's little brother always got to be the Indian! The laundromat was just across the street and Pete Taken Alive and family would come up from Cheyenne Eagle Butte where he was a teacher at the Indian School to do their weekly laundry. … the tears in Willard Male Bear's eyes when he brought the get-well card to me that they would not let him deliver to his coach … he baby sat with Mike, Kathy and Rick while I took it up to the hospital. He entertained them with his artistic abilities and drew beautiful picture of all the natural beauty around us. I especially remember the yellow eagle's eyes that seemed to bore right thru you. Or the fact that Art and Willard - two top scorers in that game - were not allowed to sit with the remainder of their teammates at the JODI'S CafĂ© after the game.… two that lost their lives in the rice paddies of Vietnam.… both American Indian young men … Leland and Kenny! I could write a book but I have written a lot already!

Mike Patrick said...

Beautifully said, Mother. There were several things you wrote about I did not remember. I'm glad you rekindled those memories. Thank you for posting this heartfelt note. I appreciate your comments.

Stacy Young said...

Interesting story, I enjoy reading your blog posts. Your mother's recollections are equally as interesting. I question if there will ever be a time when racism will no longer exist?

Crystal said...

This is wonderful, Mike--I wish more people took the time to think about all the ways that racism is learned. (And some of the ways that it can be un-learned, though don't think that as white people we can ever fully unlearn it, or ever fully be released from all the privilege we carry. It's more us choosing to use that privilege and power for good and in actively anti-racist ways.)

Pamela Kay of the Milky Way said...

My Grandparent's farm was near McLaughlin, SD and my siblings and I spent summers there while our parents were getting their degrees at SDSU. I remember the racism, though I didn't know that word at the time. Not from my grandparents or my aunts and uncle, but it was there whenever we went to McLaughlin or Mobridge. This is how racism is learned...and one's family is how it's prevented.

Di said...

Yes, Bruce has great courage for sure. I watched a documentary about how his life had unveiled for him, which also featured his 2 ex-wives and his children, all of who were/are very supportive, although a little 'taken aback' at first, of Bruce 'coming out'. A fascinating, painful journey. Great blog Mike!