Shane Doyle

Shane Doyle, EdD, poses for a photo outside of his Bozeman home on June 23, 2020.

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At the Black Lives Matter rally this month in Bozeman’s Bogert Park, Shane Doyle stood on the stage before the large crowd, beat a hand-held rawhide drum and sang a Crow Indian honor song.

The moment felt hopeful to Doyle, 48, a member of the Apsaalooke or Crow Tribe.

Native Americans are Montana’s largest minority group, 7% of the state’s population, and many identify with Black Lives Matter as protesting a similar history of oppression, violence and discrimination.

“I think it’s been for sure one of the most remarkable and hopeful movements I’ve seen in my life,” said Doyle, an educational and environmental consultant with Native Nexus.

It’s hopeful because people are recognizing that a lot of injustices have occurred over hundreds of years, injustices embedded in “institutions in our society used to hold back people of color,” Doyle said.

“We’re victims of the same racial system – racism.”

He isn’t alone among Native Americans in Bozeman who embrace the Black Lives Matters message.

Walter Fleming, 66, a longtime Montana State University professor, Kickapoo tribal member and head of MSU’s Native American studies department, called it an important movement that’s bringing attention to issues his community has had to deal with for hundreds of years.

The American Indian Movement formed in 1968 in Minneapolis, Fleming said, because Native Americans wanted to document police brutality — the same city and same issue that sparked the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“This awareness is not new to Native people,” he said.

Today, Fleming said, Native Americans are concerned about the lack of respect by police agencies for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. That issue has inspired marches in Bozeman, throughout Montana, Western states and Canada.

“It is hoped, at a greater level, that all these protests will lead to some kind of reform, like finding missing people,” he said.

Racism today is more internal, not as overt as in past generations.

“We no longer see any signs saying, ‘No dogs or Indians,’” Fleming said.

That was a common attitude in his mother’s day, he said. And even if such signs are no longer posted in store windows, the fact that they existed still affects him today.

Holly Old Crow, 28, an MSU senior studying sociology and co-president of the American Indian Council, grew up on the Crow Reservation. She said she felt an immediate empathy with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“What they’re going through, what they’re protesting, it lines up a lot with what Native Americans go through,” Old Crow said. “Unfortunately because of our history of genocide and historic trauma, most Americans think we’re part of the past. We’re still trying to put ourselves back on the map.”

With Black Lives Matter, she said, “We feel their pain, we see their pain, and we understand their pain.”

Racism today

As examples of racism today, Doyle pointed to Indigenous people killed by Billings police and to the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women, whose disappearances have often been ignored or neglected.

“If they were white girls, people would be looking for them,” he said.

Doyle also pointed to MSU, where he was once undergraduate leader of the American Indian Council, lead singer with the Bobcat Singers, and earned a doctorate in education.

“You can count on one hand the number of Native Americans on the faculty at MSU,” he said. “Even in Native American studies, they’re mostly white professors.”

According to the university’s planning and analysis website, MSU in 2019 had 600 tenured or tenure-track professors. In all, 521 or 87% were white.

Eight faculty members were Hispanic, one was African American and three were Native American. That’s half of 1% Native American professors. Native students at MSU make up eight times as large a share of the student population, 4.2%.

“I see racism everywhere at MSU,” Doyle said, “yet they practically break their arms patting themselves on their back” when it comes to Native Americans.

MSU is working on a diversity plan that calls for getting the faculty to match the diversity of its student body by 2040, according to Ariel Donohue, senior officer for diversity and inclusion.

Asked why MSU has so few Native American faculty members, Tracy Ellig, MSU spokesman, wrote that hiring American Indian faculty is important to the university.

The national pool of American Indians with Ph.D.s is small, he wrote, citing a National Science Foundation survey that counted 116 Native Americans or Alaskan Natives out of more than 55,000 doctorates awarded in 2018.

On top of that, Ellig said, “many outstanding universities can pay much higher salaries, and we have lost a number of faculty members to such institutions.”

MSU is redoubling outreach efforts and building relationships with doctoral students, he said. The university also has joined the Aspire Alliance’s Institutional Change network, or IChange, a national effort to increase diversity in science, technology and engineering faculties. That aims to make progress similar to the National Science Foundation Advance grant that helped MSU hire more women faculty in science and engineering.

“MSU is working hard (at) recruiting and retaining American Indian and other minority faculty,” Ellig wrote. “We are excited and optimistic that our efforts will be successful.”

Doyle, a father of five, said he was an adjunct instructor in Native American studies for 14 years, until his contract was canceled in 2015 without explanation. That happened though he was one of 42 authors credited in the prestigious journal Nature on discoveries from the remains of a 12,700-year-old Indigenous boy found near Wilsall, the oldest genome found in the Americas.

Doyle pointed to the late MSU President Bill Tietz, remembered as a great leader who was aggressive and ruffled feathers.

“If you’re a white man you can do that, but if you’re Indian or Black or a woman, it’s more likely people will not respect what you have to say,” Doyle said.

Doyle sees racism in the way that Native American names, with the exception of Absaroka, have been almost entirely erased from the Gallatin Valley area and Yellowstone National Park.

“We’ve been erased so thoroughly and completely,” he said. “It may not scream racism, but it is deeply ingrained as a colonial mindset.”

Still, he sees some signs of progress, such actions by the city of Bozeman and MSU replacing the Columbus Day holiday in October with Indigenous People’s Day. And today people often acknowledge that Native tribes were the first to inhabit this land.

The thousands who turned out for Bozeman’s two Black Lives Matter rallies also gave him hope. Doyle said hope comes from “the hearts of the people. The laws have not caught up.”

“The rally showed that there are a lot of people who care,” Doyle said. “It shows people understand things have not been fair.”

Walter Fleming

Dr. Walter Fleming, head of the Montana State University Native American studies department, poses of a photo outside of Wilson Hall on June 23, 2020.

Mascots

Walter Fleming teaches an introductory class in Native American studies, and every now and again he hears challenges from white students, often repeating things they’ve heard at home.

They may challenge the idea that blankets with smallpox were intentionally given by white settlers or the Army to American Indians, he said.

“We get a lot of pushback on mascots,” Fleming said, like the Washington pro football team whose name he won’t repeat. Native Americans have been challenging the Redskins name and logo for decades.

Defenders will say, “’Oh, it’s harmless” or “Oh, you’re too sensitive,’” Fleming said. Those comebacks “negate my opinions and feelings. As long as they can rationalize it in their mind, I’m not allowed to be offended. That’s kind of a daily thing, and that’s racist.”

MSU has seen its enrollment of Native American students grow in recent years, to 712 last year, though that was down from the peak of 776.

Some students arrive at MSU with the stereotype that all Indigenous students are getting a free ride. Native students do receive a tuition waiver, but that only covers part of their college expenses.

“Education is a treaty responsibility for the federal government,” which promised education and medical care in exchange for “174 million acres lost in the treaties,” Fleming said.

“It’s already bought and paid for,” he said. “I’d rather have the land back.”

Asked what the white community can do to create a more fair and just society, Fleming said it would help if people had a better understanding of what leads to inequality, especially the impact of poverty.

The large turnout for the Black Lives Matter rally and marches, he said, “it’s a sign the whole community recognizes the concern. Because when 3,000 people show up, it’s no longer an issue that can be ignored.”

Gallatin and Park County Women's March 2019

Holly Old Crow speaks about missing and murdered indigenous women during the Gallatin and Park County Women's March in this Jan. 2019 file photo in front of Montana Hall.

Holly Old Crow

Holly Old Crow said her encounters with racism happen most often on social media, which seems to embolden some people to write racist comments against Native Americans.

“It’s definitely still out there in Montana and Bozeman,” she said.

Almost every Halloween, she said, Native Americans run into college students wearing American Indian costumes. Last year at a downtown bar, some of her friends challenged people over their costumes, and it almost became confrontational.

“Some are ignorant, they really didn’t understand,” Old Crow said. “One girl apologized, but she didn’t change.

“It’s offensive because at the end of the day you’re objectifying our culture,” she said. “The regalia — they’re symbols of our honor, our tribe, each person’s identity. They mean something at a spiritual level. When they wear something for fun … it’s disrespectful.”

Old Crow said she’d like to see MSU hire more Native American professors, including in Native American studies.

“It’s really hard to learn about yourself and your culture and history from someone who’s not Native,” she said. “They want to sympathize with you but they’re don’t exactly understand.

“It gets you excited to see Native people being successful. It inspires you.”

Montana’s efforts to teach Indian Education for All lessons in public school classrooms is a sign of progress, Old Crow said. “That’s a real good deal.”

The annual powwow that the American Indian Council has put on for 44 years is also important, she said, because it gives Native students a sense of pride and a “home away from home” and offers non-Native students an opportunity to learn.

Old Crow said she plans to earn her bachelor’s degree and then go to law school, and hopes to get into federal Indian law.

“My biggest interest is to come back and help my community,” she said, “help our people on the Crow Reservation.” As the mother of two, she added, her children are “my biggest motivators.”

People who want to make a better world need to be willing to have conversations, to listen and be educated, she said, and not rely on stereotypes that stigmatize Natives, Black people or any minority.

She recommended a book, “All the Real Indians Died Off, and 20 Other Myths about Natives” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker.

“There’s all sorts of people I wish I could send that to,” she said.

Dominica Bear Crane

Dominica Bear Crane poses for a photo on June 23, 2020, outside of her Bozeman home.

‘Give us a chance’

Dominica Bear Crane, 50, grew up on the Crow Reservation and in Bozeman. While her parents attended MSU, she attended Irving School.

The mother of four earned a bachelor’s degree at MSU in early childhood education and today is working on an elementary education degree while working as an assistant teacher at the Head Start preschool in Bozeman.

Bear Crane said she and her younger children still get stares in stores. She smiles back and says, “Have a nice day.”

She has had jobs where she felt co-workers complained about her to the supervisor behind her back. It hurt her feelings and she ended up just leaving.

In Bozeman today, things seem better than in the 1980s, when white kids chased her aunts all the way home to her grandparents’ apartment. Now they don’t chase you, she said, “but it’s a hidden factor.”

Things are worse in Billings or Hardin, just outside the Crow Reservation. Her children learned about prejudice early, playing basketball and volleyball, getting fouled, getting less playing time, getting called savages. She told them, “Keep playing.”

Two of her children dropped out of Bozeman High School. Bear Crane said her daughter was made fun of over her weight, when a photo was posted on a student website. Her son would never talk about why he dropped out.

“It’s really hard because education is important to me,” she said.

Bear Crane said she wishes that more white people would “not judge us and get to know us more as people. Not be judgmental or label us. We don’t all drink.

“Like them, we work, we pay taxes, we raise our families, but still they label you as beneath them,” she said, sounding tearful. “Give us a chance.”

The Black Lives Matter demonstrations surprised her. The large turnout made her feel “some people really do care.”

“Human lives matter,” she said, “no matter what color you are.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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