in Hill County
Havre Daily News
An article by a University of Montana journalism student describing poor treatment of Native Americans at Havre businesses has people talking, both in town and at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
The story prompted Native American and white residents alike to search for possible solutions. The story, "Bordering on Racism," appeared in the University of Montana School of Journalism's 2005 Native News Project, "Perceptions," which included articles about each of the state's reservations. It was inserted into Saturday's Great Falls Tribune and reached area homes that day.
In it, reporter Anne E. Pettinger describes instances of discrimination at several local businesses, including shop clerks who admit to watching Native American customers more closely than whites, and Indians who tell stories of unfair treatment, such as a boy who says he was searched at a store though his lighter-skinned friend was not.
The article has already prompted a response by one of the businesses mentioned. Two Maurices employees are quoted in the story as saying they watch Native American shoppers more closely than white shoppers. When the article appeared, the corporation sent a letter to the editor to the Havre Daily News.
"Several immediate steps have been taken including conducting a thorough investigation. Additionally, we are re-confirming our diversity policy and will be conducting further diversity training throughout the organization as a result of this issue," said the letter by John Schroeder, vice president at the corporate office in Duluth, Minn.
Sue Ross, another vice president, said disciplinary action is possible as a result of the investigation.
"We are committed to equally and respectfully serving the needs of all our customers, our employees and our vendors," Ross said in an interview. "Employees are not allowed to discriminate."
Ross said Maurices is planning additional employee training in response to the article. "It's always emphasized," she said. "But as a result of this incident we will step up our diversity training."
The article prompted several residents of Rocky Boy to write letters to the editor as well.
"Oh my God, was I ever so upset," said Cheryl St. Marks of Rocky Boy. "I've spent most of my lifetime here on the reservation. I've never personally experienced prejudice due to the fact that I have lighter skin color than most of my people, but I have, however, seen it in Havre."
St. Marks said she thinks the effect of the article will be good. "I think it needs to get out into the open," she said.
Rocky Boy tribal council member Jake Parker was not so fazed by the story, and also not as hopeful about its impact. "It might have done more harm than good. It targeted a couple stores," which might have been unfair, he said.
But Parker said he might think twice before going into those stores. The incidents sounded racist to him. "Maybe they weren't meant to come out that way, but that's the way I read it," he said.
The bottom line, he said, is "We need to live together." Rocky Boy and Havre rely on each other and share resources. "As far as racism goes, at some point we need to put that behind us."
Zella Nault said that when she reads or hears about racism, she worries first about her students. Nault is student activities coordinator at Rocky Boy High School.
"When they say a bad thing about one Indian, it affects all Indians," she said. Nault says if she were to behave poorly in town, it would reflect on her students just because she is Native American.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said people have been talking to him about the story, though he said he hasn't read it himself.
"I heard there were two or three businesses in town that were kind of picked on a little bit," he said. "Maybe I'm pretty naive, but I don't think Havre is a racist town."
Rice said there are exceptions. "We have people who may be bigots, but for the most part I think we're tolerant," he said. "Maybe dialogue is the answer. There are some perceptions out there that people in Havre don't like them. And maybe there are (some that don't.) ... I'm sure there are people out there that don't like people in Havre too. Dialogue is the answer."
Rice said a few people have told him, "They deserve what they get," about the poor treatment of Native Americans. But Rice said he responds: "Well, have you noticed not many people hire them?" suggesting that Native Americans aren't treated fairly.
Rice said he spoke to one of the business people mentioned in the article, Golden Spike owner Tammy Farmer, and she told him her quotes were taken out of context.
The article quoted Farmer describing the difference between "good" and "bad" Indians and referring to the reservation as "lawless," among other remarks.
She said there's tension between working people and reservation residents who are "able-bodied, but they make more money sitting at home watching the mailbox." Residents of Rocky Boy do not receive per capita checks.
Farmer said Thursday she wants to respond by writing a letter to the Rocky Boy newspaper.
"I did say very positive things. I did not pinpoint Indians at all," Farmer said Thursday. "I said there's good people and bad people, good and bad in every race."
Farmer said she was shocked when she saw the article.
"I am apologetic about what was said as far as nothing positive appearing in the article," she said.
Farmer said she does not discriminate against Native Americans and she did not tell the reporter that four Indians the reporter described being ridiculed at the bar probably deserved it.
"If I ever see a college journalist in my bar, I will show them to the door," she said.
Many Native Americans say the kind of discrimination described in the story was moderate compared to what they have seen.
"The truth hurts," longtime educator Lloyd Top Sky said.
As far as a response, Top Sky suggested a committee be formed with representatives from both communities.
"I know a lot of people here bear and grin," he said. "We talk about it but we don't do anything about it. We've been taught not to talk back to white people."
Though Top Sky said he has heard of worse discrimination than that described in the article, he also does not think there is a problem everywhere.
"I think there's some businesses I'm really content with," he said.
Top Sky said he thinks education is an important tool to address racism and refute misconceptions.
Havre High School teacher Jim Magera agrees.
"I was very disappointed in the way people were being portrayed," Magera said. "I would hope that most people aren't that way in Havre. "
Magera said he mentioned the article to his students on Monday and found that none of them had read it.
It's the type of article he'd like to use in his local history and Native American history classes if he can get school approval, he said.
"In my profession, it's something I can use in class and discuss some of these issues and maybe this will help," he said. "Over the years I thought things were improving. I would hate to see something like this flare up and cause people to slide back into entrenched positions."
Magera said teachers are in a good position to help make something positive come of the article.
Assistant superintendent Dennis Parman organized an Indian Education Advisory Council this school year to help the district review new materials for inclusion in the social studies curriculum. Parman said today that he had not read the article, so he could not say whether he thought it would be a good addition.
But racism is a part of Native American history, he said. "I don't know how we could go through that history without talking about it," he said.
The school district also has counselors to help students who think they have been a target of racism at school or in their daily lives, he said.
Havre High School Indian education adviser Emory Champagne said she has not seen the article except for a quick glance. Racism is something she's accustomed to dealing with and addressing with students, she said.
"I know how to handle it and I've relayed that on to students," she said.
Champagne said she did plan to take a closer look at that particular article.
Faculty adviser for the journalism project, Carol VanValkenburg, said she has not had much response from the Havre community besides one complaint.
"We've been doing the project for close to 15 years," VanValkenburg said. "We began doing it because we thought it was important for our students to be covering people who are in some cases not of the same culture."
VanValkenburg said the project was also in response to what she said is poor media coverage of Native Americans in the state.
"We felt the media in Montana was mostly reacting to stories about Indians," she said. Stories would either be about murders and crimes or powwows, but nothing in between.
"We hear again and again the complaint Native Americans tell us about how they are treated," she said. "It's one of the things that prompted us to look at the relationship between reservation communities throughout the state."
VanValkenburg said her reporters did not go into the communities they covered with a preconceived idea about what story they would write.
"She did not go there with her mind made up about this, and that really is critical," VanValkenburg said. "She went there and she did a lot of observing, as you can see from that initial scene" where the reporter watches four Native Americans being made fun of at a Havre bar. "It certainly doesn't mean she was suggesting that everybody in Havre was racist."
VanValkenburg just returned from Washington, D.C., where she and students who worked on the 2004 Native American News Project were presented with the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for excellent coverage of disadvantaged people.