Jeffrey Viken, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota, spoke on race and prejudice in South Dakota during a recent presentation at Black Hills State University. Viken's talk was sponsored by the Madeline A. Young Distinguished Speaker Series.
If you missed Judge Viken's talk last month don't worry. Check out the video of his presentation.

A productive conversation of race and prejudice in South Dakota cannot take place without addressing the history of the Black Hills, according to Jeffrey Viken, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota.

“In your daily lives, when you are trying to make decisions, don’t you look back at your past mistakes? Don’t you examine your life and get advice from friends and family members. Don‘t you look back at the wisdom you’ve accumulated and use it?” said Viken during a recent presentation at Black Hills State University titled “Why are there so many Indians around here? A middle schooler’s question evokes reflection on racial prejudice.”

The inspiration for Viken’s talk, which was sponsored by the Madeline A. Young Distinguished Speaker Series, came from a discussion at a Rapid City middle school where he spoke about the constitution, structure of government, justice, equality, and the Treaty of Fort Laramie – an agreement which guaranteed ownership of the Black Hills to the Lakota people. During the discussion, one of the students raised her hand and asked “Why are there so many Indians around here?”

This prompted Viken to start a conversation with various people across the state. “I found people had no formal education on these matters … (Many people) don’t have the faintest idea that (South Dakota’s) native people have a rich and deep history.”

Viken and his wife, Linda Lea, have developed strong relations with South Dakota’s native people. Both are adopted members of a Lakota family with whom they spend days and weekends, ceremonies and family events taking in the rich Lakota tradition.

“I believe, after 36 years of law, that there is an education gap, information gap and communication gap between our cultures,” Viken said. “It is much easier to be suspicious of people you don’t know than people you know; it is more likely you will be suspicious of another culture if you don’t understand it.”

That understanding will come from knowing the history of the cultures … starting the story at the beginning, he said presenting a brief timeline of the conflict between the Lakota people and the U.S. Government in South Dakota.

“We need to start from the beginning …. We need to embrace and understand our history and where we come from. I think that will start the progression into the root of the problem of prejudice and racism,” he said.

Viken encouraged people to embrace the native culture by going to the Lakota Nation Invitational Tournament, the basketball games, the powwows. “But don’t just go to the game, talk to the people around you … Have a conversation. Celebrate the fact we are all human beings.”

Jace DeCory, BHSU assistant professor of history and American Indian studies, agreed. “We are all human beings. We are all two-legged. The Creator made us…we are lucky to be different and unique.”

DeCory referenced the Native American tradition of the medicine wheel which includes four colors, red, black, yellow,and white, which represent the different people throughout the world. “When one is missing then the wheel is not complete.”

Rapid City resident William Brave Bird said he was happy to hear the conversation started by Viken noting that it is a conversation that needs to be discussed by everyday people on both sides.

Racism and prejudice still exists, but that ignorance and arrogance is not born into people, it is taught and learned, he said noting that change is possible.

“Our children don’t want to follow this way. In order for us to find that common ground we need to be given an opportunity.  We need to show our children that someone like me, someone like my brother or sister, can stand up like you (Judge Viken) and do the same things,” he said. “I know the younger children, if they are given the perception that their own people are standing up in leadership roles and helping with that change, I think that gives them an insight of hope.”

A hope that is desperately needed both on and off the reservation, Brave Bird added.

The Madeline A. Young Distinguished Speaker Series was established in 1986 by a gift endowment from Madeline Young, a 1924 alumna. Young expressed her desire to host controversial, stimulating, and enlivening speakers at BHSU. It was initiated at the University in 1987 with an address by former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. Other Madeline Young Speakers have included: Terry Waite, former hostage, hostage negotiator and envoy for England’s Archbishop of Canterbury; Felix Justice and Danny Glover, actors; Sam Donaldson, television broadcaster; Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winner; and Lech Walesa, former Polish president.

The next speaker in the series is Vinny Guadagnino, star of the hit MTV reality show  ”Jersey Shore,”  Thursday Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at  the Donald E. Young Sports and Fitness Center. Guadagnino will share his story of living with anxiety and offer advice on emotional health.