The ACLU of Montana’s new indigenous justice outreach coordinator was the main speaker at a forum in Billings Thursday night, but it was a couple from Pryor whose chilling story captivated those in attendance.
Meg Singer, a member of the Navajo Nation who earned a degree in Native American studies from Montana State University Bozeman, was hired for the new American Civil Liberties Union position last September.
She has been traveling the state since then, visiting every reservation, meeting every tribal council, introducing herself to tribal members and responding to requests for help when incidents of discrimination, harassment and racism are reported.
Singer’s Thursday-evening appearance at the Billings Public Library was part of the Native American Race Relations and Healing Lecture Series. She spoke for half an hour or so, then introduced Elsworth and Brandy GoesAhead, of Pryor.
“My wife and I are big believers in destiny,” Elsworth Goes Ahead said, “and things happen for a reason. … I’d like to say God had a hand in it, in bringing Miss Singer into our lives.”
They met her on Jan. 25, when Singer was in Pryor for the sort of community meeting she’s been holding across the state. Four days earlier, on Jan. 21, the GoesAheads had gone to Reed Point to watch their son’s high school basketball game. They were there early, GoesAhead said, standing outside the gym with another Indian couple, who had a young child with them.
Players and staff members had already entered the building, he said, but then a man, clearly a Reed Point parent, walked up and knocked on the locked door. GoesAhead said a woman, a member of the athletic staff at Reed Point High School, opened the door and let the man in.
GoesAhead said they asked if they could come in, too.
“She stated, ‘We don’t have any workers here yet. We’re only letting white people in,'” GoesAhead said.
He and his wife didn’t know what to do, whether there was anything they could do, until meeting Singer.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you how heavy that statement was weighing on me,” he said. “It consumed me every waking moment.”
Singer assured them that what happened was wrong, that it was probably illegal and that the ACLU would do all it could to help them. She said after the forum, which attracted about 35 people, that the ACLU is writing a demand letter to the Reed Point school district, asking for a response to the GoesAheads’ allegations.
She said the ACLU is prepared to pursue legal action against the district if the issue is not resolved to the GoesAheads’ satisfaction.
Singer talked about two other major incidents she has been involved in since joining he ACLU, including the widely reported incident at Polson High School in September, where several students, as part of homecoming activities, wore “white pride” and “white power” shirts to school.
Singer said school administrators tried to write it off as an isolated incident, out of character for the school. But she said she talked to Native American parents—the school is on the Flathead Indian Reservation—who “talked about years, generations of problems they’d had at that school.”
She also spoke of going to MSU Northern in Havre, where members of the Native American club on campus painted the club logo on a sidewalk, as did other campus groups. But when a club member added “#NODAPL” to the logo—a familiar hashtag expressing solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline—school administrators painted over it.
Club members publicly called on the administration to respect their free-speech rights “and it escalated into this crazy thing,” Singer said. She said one Native student was grabbed by plainclothes police officers who did not identify themselves, and when the student struggled with them he was charged with resisting arrest.
When she went to Havre, Singer said, club members changed the location of their meeting several times, finally settling on an off-campus church basement. She said she was stunned to learn that they had to meet there because the students had been harassed and intimated by white students.
“They couldn’t even go into the restrooms at school by themselves,” she said.
Singer said a lawyer retained by the ACLU donated his time to the case and succeeded in having the charges against the student dropped.
Singer, who apologized at the beginning of her presentation for having to bring up so many unpleasant stories, was more hopeful by the end. She said the upshot of all three incidents was that people are organizing, speaking up and taking action.
Several members of the audience said the best way to combat racism is through education. But Avery Old Coyote, who grew up on the Flathead Reservation, wondered if that was enough, given that all three incidents discussed at the forum took place in educational settings.
Elsworth GoesAhead, who related a couple of other stories of blatant racism, all the more compelling for his calm, soft-spoken delivery, said the key is educating people on their rights, just as Singer did at that meeting in Pryor.
Another member of the audience, Sonia Davis, called on white people at the meeting and in the community at large to take the lead in standing up and confronting bigotry and white supremacy whenever they see it, forcefully and loudly.
“That’s the only way we can shut this shit down,” she said.
Russell Rowland, who organized the lecture series with Adrian Jawort starting a year and a half ago, said he was encouraged by what he heard Thursday night. He also liked what he heard from Davis.
“I think ‘shut this shit down’ should be our motto,” he said.