New Mexicans join effort to help air voices of Lakota tribe where dozens of kids suffered harassment

Ricardo Caté

It’s easy for mainstream media to sensationalize grim aspects of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, said Russell Contreras, an Albuquerque-based Associated Press reporter who’s also president of UNITY, a national nonprofit that advocates for fair and accurate media coverage of diverse populations.

Pine Ridge is the second-largest reservation in the United States and the most poverty-stricken. Its death rate exceeds that of the rest of the country by 300 percent.

Nuanced voices of the Oglala Lakota people themselves are often muffled by superficial coverage of the community by outsiders, Contreras said. That’s why he and other UNITY journalists, several from the Southwest, are traveling across the country this weekend to collaborate with tribal members eager to broadcast their own experiences to a wider audience.

Among them are 57 children still recovering from an incident during a field trip Jan. 27. A story in Indian Country Today said the kids and their chaperones from the American Horse School in Allen, S.D., were attending a minor-league hockey game in Rapid City when people in the crowd sprayed them with beer and shouted racial slurs.

Pine Ridge community members subsequently rallied around the students, demanding that the episode be classified as a hate crime and that the assailants face criminal charges. A Facebook page emerged titled “I support The Lakota 57.”

The Rapid City Journal apologized for a headline it ran with a story about the trouble, which the paper said “signified that there was a justification for the harassment of Native American students at the … hockey game.” In February, one man was charged with disorderly conduct for his role in the attack.

Ricardo Caté, a writer from Santo Domingo Pueblo whose Without Reservations cartoon series runs daily in The New Mexican, is among the group heading to Pine Ridge on Saturday.

“I just happened to run across the story on Facebook. I was appalled and thought, ‘I have to draw something about this’ … to try to draw attention to this matter,” Caté said. “It seemed like nobody knew anything about it, and I was listening to the news about the Kardashians and other worthless stuff, and nothing on this. The whole country should be talking about it.”

The UNITY event at Pine Ridge, titled Empower Your Lakota Story, will include a town hall discussion, training on how to use multimedia and digital reporting tools, and workshops about cartooning, social media, building websites and entrepreneurial journalism.

Contact Margaret Wright at 986-3011 or mwright@sfnewmexican.com.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the state in which the Pine Ridge Reservation is located. A correction was made at 9:23 a.m. April 30, 2015.