On Native American Day, tribal members lament the status of race relations in South Dakota

‘If you’re brown, that’s your first crime,’ parade attendee says

By: - October 9, 2023 3:37 pm
Gina Robertson, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, participates in a Native American Day celebration in downtown Sioux Falls on Oct. 9, 2023.

Gina Robertson, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, participates in a Native American Day celebration in downtown Sioux Falls on Oct. 9, 2023. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

SIOUX FALLS — Indigenous people who attended a Native American Day parade on Monday celebrated their culture but also lamented a lack of progress on race relations in South Dakota.

Gina Robertson is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. 

“We live in a small town in northeast South Dakota and it’s still like the 1950s there,” she said. “If you’re brown, that’s your first crime. And what can you do about it, you know? What can you really do?”

Robertson criticized a lack of progress under Gov. Kristi Noem and other current state leaders.

“It won’t change as long as they keep electing people like Noem, and they’ll keep electing people like her,” she said.

Native Americans constitute about 9% of South Dakota’s population, according to census data, and are the state’s largest minority group. South Dakota has observed Native American Day in place of Columbus Day since 1990, as part of reconciliation efforts begun by the late Oglala Lakota newsman Tim Giago and the late Gov. George Mickelson.

The state has a dark history of race relations — from the Wounded Knee Massacre to boarding schools’ erasure of Indigenous cultureExamples of racial tensions have continued in modern times — such as a Rapid City hotel owner barring Native Americans last year.


Monte Muggins, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said many non-Indigenous people lack a nuanced knowledge about the tribes in South Dakota.

“I still get the ‘do you live in a tipi’ kind of questions,” Muggins said.

James Farmer is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate. He said some people treat him like a “foreigner,” which he finds ironic.

“We were here first, you know?” he said.

Lorenzo Stars, a fellow member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, said race relations have gradually improved over his lifetime, despite the ups and downs over the decades.

“There may be some variability going on now, and I think a lot of that has to do with the trends in politics nowadays,” he said.

Monday’s Native American Day events in Sioux Falls started with a prayer and blessing at Lyon Park and an honoring of Stars’ mother, Opal (Marshall) Stars, born March 7, 1929, only five years after the Snyder Act, which extended U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S.

Noem, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken and Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Scott Herman issued proclamations designating Oct. 9, 2023, as “Opal Stars Day” in honor of her life as a loving matriarch, educator and preserver of culture. 

“I still believe in the great future for my Native people,” she told South Dakota Searchlight.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Joshua Haiar
Joshua Haiar

Joshua Haiar is a reporter based in Sioux Falls. Born and raised in Mitchell, he joined the Navy as a public affairs specialist after high school and then earned a degree from the University of South Dakota. Prior to joining South Dakota Searchlight, Joshua worked for five years as a multimedia specialist and journalist with South Dakota Public Broadcasting.