Symposium planned as a ‘movement toward healing’

Editor’s note: Russell Rowland helped organize the Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium, a daylong series of panel discussions scheduled for Aug. 22 at the Billings Public Library. A companion piece by co-organizer Adrian Jawort, is published above this one. Click here to see it. 

In 2007, I moved back home to Billings, where I graduated from high school in 1976, after being gone for 25 years. I had lived in 12 different states during my absence, mostly in large cities, including Boston, Washington, D.C., Seattle and San Francisco.

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Russell Rowland

The last 12 years before I came back were in San Francisco, where political correctness is something of an art form, to its own detriment at times. The prevailing attitude in San Francisco tends to be, “We are the most open-minded city in the country,” but the caveat that is never acknowledged is “as long as you agree with us.”

So when I arrived in Billings and found myself appalled at some of the things I heard coming out of people’s mouths, especially in relationship to the Native Americans in the community, I took some time to sort out how much of my reaction was based on my recent conditioning. But the more I traveled around the state, and the more I studied what is happening, and what has happened since this state was “founded,” the more I realized that I had some pretty strong feelings about how the Native Americans are treated in my home state.

Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium, Saturday, Aug. 22, Billings Public Library.

Panel One, 10 to noon: What Really Happened? A summary and discussion of how the history played out and what mistakes were made on both sides. With writer-editor Adrian Jawort and William Snell, director of Rocky Mountain Tribal Council Leader. Moderator: Russell Rowland.

Panel Two, 1 to 3 p.m.: Priority Issues: This panel will discuss the most important issues that need attention in the Native American community as well as in the rest of Montana in regard to the Native American peoples. With Carolyn Pease Lopez, legislator from Crow Agency; Reno Charette, Indian Outreach coordinator from MSU-Billings; and Crystal Rondeaux-Hickman, an adjunct faculty member at Little Big Horn College. Moderator: Jerry Clark.

Panel Three, 3 to 5 p.m.: What To Do? Possible solutions will be introduced and discussed. With Glenda McCarthy, a Billings Senior High teacher who worked with Aborigines in her native Australia; Joel Simpson, resource outreach coordinator with Rimrock Foundation; and Billings City Councilman Mike Yakawich. Moderator: Adrian Jawort.

When I was 12, my father took a job teaching the St. Labre School in Ashland. For two years, he came home with stories that piqued my interest. He loved the kids in that school, and shared a sense of humor with the Northern Cheyenne so that he seemed to always have another funny incident to share when he came home to Billings on the weekends. But he was also very up front about the conditions on the reservation, and even in my self-absorbed teenage fog, the message got through to me. So I found it sad, and more than a little troubling, to come home to a situation that seemed to be pretty much the same as it was 30 years before.

And the most troubling part about it was that very few people seemed to be interested in talking about it, or if they were, they did so with an air of complete hopelessness, whether they were native or white. There seemed to be an overall sense of resignation that this is a situation that is never going to change.

For the past few years, I’ve been wondering whether there’s something that we might be able to do to break open this hard shell and get to the meat of this issue. And the more I read about our history, and the more I talk to people, the more convinced I have become that part of the problem is that we are so afraid of talking about the issues that nobody wants to bring it up. It’s still so incredibly fraught with animosity and conflicting emotions. The trust is tenuous, if not completely broken.

Most of us know the facts. Or we know the facts that have been fed to us through the years. And many people simply want to put it behind us without thinking about it. But the problem with that is this: most of the issues that came out of the Indian Wars still exist today.

The trauma that was suffered on both sides is still raw, and salt is often poured on these wounds on a daily basis by people and policies that are insensitive to the fact that there are still those walking among us who lost loved ones in this horrible conflict. On both sides.

A few months ago, I approached my friend Adrian Jawort, a fellow writer, and asked him whether he thought it would be a good idea to plan an event where we could have an open discussion about these issues in the interest of finding some kind of healing. Or at least start a discussion that might lead to some healing, and perhaps eventually even some peace.

Adrian was more than open to the idea, and thanks to his help, and that of Crystal Rondeaux-Hickman, we have organized an event called the Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium. This daylong series of panels is going to be designed to approach this difficult topic in the spirit of healing and forgiveness, with an eye toward solutions rather than focusing on who is to blame.

There has been enough blame thrown around for the past 150 years. Everyone understands the anger, and the pain that was generated by these events. We are now hoping to start a movement toward healing. And we hope you will join us with your thoughts and ideas. The event will be at the Billings Public Library on Aug. 22, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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