So I'm sitting on the curb in Mission and a gal named for an Italian artist walks up and talks to me about eradicating institutional racism in South Dakota.

These things happen. Pull up a seat with us on the curb.

Morandi Hurst, teacher, Spring Creek Elementary

Morandi Hurst, teacher, Spring Creek Elementary

Morandi Hurst grew up in Rapid City. She majored in history at Vassar. She missed the Plains and wanted to benefit her home state and her community, so after graduating in 2010, she came home. But since she wasn't into welding, jobs were scarce. With regret but needing to pay the bills, she got ready to leave for a job in L.A.

But a day before decamping, she got a call from a friend working for Teach for America at Spring Creek Elementary, by the Little White River on the Rosebud Reservation. Spring Creek needed a teacher's aide (paraprofessional, we write impressively on résumés). Wanna come? her friend asked.

Hurst saddled up, headed east, and fell in love. Spring Creek, she says, is the most beautiful place in the world (and this from a gal who grew up in the Black Hills). Spring Creek kids and parents, she found, are delightful. She worked alongside Kate Haswell in a mixed grade 1–8 classroom and decided she wanted to be a teacher.

Ah, but adding teaching certification to her degree would take a year and cost about $10,000, and lovely as they are, the trees of the Little White River canyon grow neither money nor time.

Fortunately, Hurst at a quicker, cheaper option. The friend who recruited her was one of three Teach for America teachers at Spring Creek. All three inspired Hurst to join TFA, which would pay for her certification and put her in a classroom right away. It wasn't easy: Hurst had to attend a five-week boot camp in Phoenix teaching children in summer school (talk about learning on the fly) and commit to cramming all the contact hours required for teaching certification around full-time work during the school year, but she did it.

Spring Creek didn't have an opening during her first year in TFA. She thus taught and obtained her certification at Littleburg Elementary (still in the heavily Native American Todd County district), then transferred to Spring Creek for her second year in TFA.

TFA recruits serve two years. But Hurst, like a third of TFA's alumni since 1990, remains in the classroom. She is starting her third year as a teacher at Spring Creek Elementary, this time around teaching grade 6–8 reading and math. And like every proud teacher, she rattles her Spring Creek students' accomplishments: four students on full scholarships to Phillips Exeter Academy summer school; an eighth grader studying earth science through the University of California-Irvine on full scholarship; another eighth grader winning a national poetry award; three Spring Creekers winning the statewide science fair; half the students enrolling in Saturday enrichment classes taught by teachers volunteering their time.... All of those accomplishments and more, Hurst says, belie the bad reputation that too many South Dakotans give to Indian students and schools.

Hurst loves her work and her school. But why do that work here, in South Dakota? She says she believes we all should serve our home, and her passion is here.

And then, as we sit on the curb in Mission, she says we need to fight this fight.

What fight? I ask.

The fight for "educational equity for Native American students," says Hurst. That means giving her Spring Creek kids to have the same opportunities as white kids. That means seeing Indian kids graduate at the same rate as white kids. That means making institutional racism no more.

And how do you erase institutional racism in your classroom? I ask.

I don't, says Hurst. I live through my students, help them learn, and help them build a strong sense of self and community so they can fight that fight themselves.

So that's how we eradicate institutional racism. Funny the things we learn on the curb in Mission.

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James Curran chose to work in South Dakota over living in California and pursuing a Ph.D. He says that's "the best decision I ever made."

That's part of why I like him.

Curran is executive director for Teach for America in South Dakota. TFA works like a domestic, education-focused Peace Corps, recruiting new graduates from a variety of academic disciplines and universities nationwide to teach in underserved schools with lots of low-income students. South Dakota's branch of TFA, based in Mission, currently oversees 76 young teachers placed in Indian schools around the state.

After teaching in Phoenix as part of Teach for America, Curran came to South Dakota in 2007 to coach teachers in the South Dakota office of Teach for America, based in Mission. He returned to Wisconsin to help family in 2009, then returned to Mission in 2011 to work as TFA's executive director.

I've given Curran a bit of a hard time in past blog coverage, saying that filling classrooms with a stream of rookie teachers who rotate out every two years is a suboptimal solution for gaps in South Dakota's K-12 schools. But Curran says with conviction that he's seen the difference that TFA can make in schools.

That difference comes not from any TFA secret sauce. It comes, says Curran, from a belief system that we can find in many teachers and many school systems and that all can adopt. Central to TFA's beliefs is the notion, based on plenty of experience and evidence, that low-income kids have as much potential as higher-income kids and can even outperform their advantaged peers in the right conditions.

Creating those right conditions means coaching teachers to develop strong vision and leadership skills. Teaching is inherently a leadership activity: every teacher leads children in conversations and practice. TFA says leadership includes setting high goals for oneself, one's students, one's school, and one's community. TFA teachers root their goals in what families and the community want, which means TFA teachers must work hard to find out what those folks want. That's a huge exercise in organization and leadership, far beyond simply plopping someone into a classroom to keep order from eight to four.

Curran says fostering leadership among these rookie teachers has an immediate impact in the classroom. He sees his teachers come back from Pine Ridge and Standing Rock and elsewhere with great stories of student achievement. But he also sees what bringing out that achievement does to those teachers. Another of TFA's core beliefs is that seeing these kids achieve, low-income kids too often dismissed by legislators and grim statistics, changes the lives of their teachers. Whether those TFA teachers stay in education (and many do, says Curran: a third of TFA alumni since 1990 are still in the classroom) or go on to leadership roles in business, public policy, what have you, they become lifelong advocates for educational equity. They don't see reservation schools as lost causes. They believe that kids at Sisseton and Little Wound can knock the test-score socks off kids at Harrisburg and Spearfish. They believe that we can engage low-income parents and community members as allies in education reform and leaders in their own right.

TFA is teaching kids, and teaching them well, but it is also building leaders among its teaching corps and among the parents and community members whom they engage to take ownership of their schools and demand better.

*    *    *

To support TFA's efforts in South Dakota, Curran spends about half of his time as exec working on outreach and fundraising. Those efforts included successfully lobbying for two one-time appropriations from the South Dakota Legislature of $250,000. That money, appropriated in 2012 and 2013, was match money, an incentive to draw more of the private contributions on which TFA relies to pay for intensive and ongoing training for its new teachers. (Remember, school districts pay TFA teacher salaries as they would any other teacher salary, plus a recruitment fee, as districts would pay any employment agency that would help them fill openings.)

The state's willingness to match dollars resonated with donors more strongly and quickly than Curran hoped, and TFA returned to the Legislature in 2014 to seek continued support. Unfortunately, even though the state admits it cannot fill the gaps TFA fills in reservation schools, even though TFA appears to be working well for South Dakota, the Legislature chose not to continue its investment in TFA.

That retreat doesn't shut TFA's doors. It just means TFA has less money and can't expand as much as Curran had hoped. While TFA had fewer applicants this year than last, Curran says he never has trouble finding recruits who want to come to South Dakota, and with the Legislature's funding, he could easily have placed 45 new teachers here (45 young people working hard, doing good, buying stuff, paying sales tax!) instead of the 36 in this year's teaching cohort.

Curran has come to Mission to serve children, parents, and communities. His organization is doing work that the State of South Dakota says it can't. He is helping change attitudes toward Indian kids and schools. He is helping build a growing corps of teachers and leaders (that phrase should be redundant) with an ongoing commitment to work and policies that support every child's right to a fair and free education.

That's the bigger part of why I like him.

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Lefty blogger Michael Larson and righty blogger Ken Santema agree: neither Rep. Kristi Noem nor Corinna Robinson said much worthwhile at Tuesday's Dakotafest "debate" (a term to which Santema explicitly and Larson implicitly object, given the absence of real clash).

Of course, equal failure means the incumbent won.

Just Friday, the liberal Larson posted a glowing review of Robinson's performance on friendly turf at the Sioux Falls Democratic Forum. But Robinson's driftiness in Mitchell draws this coachly advice:

Noem left a lot of issues unanswered and avoided them in the debate. There were a lot of strong moments for Robinson in this debate; however, she must get more aggressive and must be near flawless if she hopes to defeat Noem [Michael Larson, "Corinna Robinson and Missed Opportunities," Taking a Left Turn in South Dakota, 2014.08.19].

The conservative Santema is equally hard on both candidates, noting Robinson's inability to focus and tailor her talking points to the Dakotafest audience but also taking issue with Noem's continues ideological inconsistency (an issue that still has me wondering how Noem manages to get her highest approval ratings among the Tea Party conservatives who ought to be most riled by ideological wishy-washiness).

Noem can ignore these unfavorable reviews. She has money, name recognition, and the seat. She need only, as Santema points out, say what she needs to get by.

Robinson cannot ignore these reviews from both sides of the aisle. The burden to shift the balance and rock every debate is entirely hers. As Larson and Santema see it, Robinson must retool and practice her messaging and her on-the-spot responses to Noem's lazy rhetoric.

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Independent candidate Larry Pressler sends out a campaign video that refers to him as a Republican:

"Listen to the words of South Dakota Republican Senator Larry Pressler...," intones Walter Cronkite, reminding us that on February 4, 1980, Pressler was a Republican. Pressler hangs that "Independent Honesty" tag on himself at the end, but Cronkite's statement is the only explicit reference to a party affiliation.

Hmmm... is Pressler trying to remind his historical base of his old allegiance and service?

And another thought from a friend of the blog: consider the message of this Cronkite ad. Pressler is honest. Pressler resists corruption. Pressler doesn't get involved with easy money from shady foreigners (well, in the case of Abscam, pretend foreigners, but the message is still there). The press isn't talking about any dishonesty, corruption, or rich foreigners in the Weiland or Howie camp. If the text and subtext of this ad sip anyone else's milkshake, it's the Mike Rounds milkshake. Slurp slurp, Larry!

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The fight for equal voting rights for our Indian neighbors is making progress. Following the successful restoration of Indian voting rights to South Dakota's Help America Vote Act plan (over the morally indefensible objection and machinations of Republican Secretary of State Jason Gant), Buffalo and Dewey counties have agreed to establish satellite early-voting stations for Indian communities located far from their county courthouses. O.J. Semans, executive director of voting-rights organization Four Directions, tells me that just  a couple weeks ago, Roberts County agreed to offer early voting at a new satellite station at Sisseton Wahpeton tribal headquarters at Old Agency, just a few miles from the courthouse in Sisseton. Dustina Gill, who ran for state legislature this spring, talked with the tribe and county and helped make that voting station happen.

In addition to Todd County, which passed a permanent resolution providing for an early-voting satellite station in 2010, we see significant gains toward providing Indian voters the same access to the ballot that we lucky white folks enjoy.

But then there's Jackson County. Jackson County is home to Wanblee, a community of hundreds of Indian voters who, if they wish to vote early, must make a good hour's round trip to the county courthouse at Kadoka. Wanblee was one of three communities where Four Directions requested and where Secretary Gant staunchly resisted funding early-voting satellite stations with HAVA money. Jackson County auditor Vicki Wilson continues to resist. Semans tells me that Auditor Wilson refuses to establish an early-voting satellite station in Wanblee for this November's election. According to Semans, Wilson and Jackson County claim that the HAVA funding mechanism remains unclear, even though the state HAVA plan makes clear to counties that they can use HAVA money for exactly this purpose of helping Indian residents cast early ballots.

O.J. Semans, executive director of Four Directions, pounds the table for Indian voting rights. Mission, South Dakota, 2014.08.18.

O.J. Semans, executive director of Four Directions, pounds the table for Indian voting rights. Mission, South Dakota, 2014.08.18.

Semans says Four Directions has attempted constructive dialogue with Jackson County for over a year. Now it may just be time to take Jackson County to court. Semans says a challenge to Jackson County's resistance to an early-voting satellite station would pass a Voting Rights Act test more easily than Brooks v. Gant, the Indian voting rights case the state lost last year. Compared to the Pine Ridge plaintiffs in Brooks v. Gant, Indian voters in Wanblee and elsewhere in Jackson County are a larger community, face a longer drive to the existing early-voting station, and face the same poverty that restricts their ability to travel to the polls.

A lawsuit to require Jackson County to offer an early-voting satellite station would go to federal court in Rapid City, where Semans said it would likely be heard by Judge Karen Schreier, who heard Brooks v. Gant. Judge Schreier ruled in favor of Indian voters in that case.

Early-voting satellite stations matter to Semans and Four Directions because they are a crucial component of voting rights equality. Four Directions' mission is to improve social and economic conditions, and the only way to do that, says Semans, is to help Indians get involved in politics. Voting and winning elections is a big part of that (and we'll never elect enough white guys to solve Indian problems). When Todd County passed its so-far unique permanent resolution establishing an early-voting satellite station, its commission consisted of three Indians and two non-Indians. Having Indians in office matters. Giving Indians the same access to the ballot matters.

But Semans notes that even the mechanism of these satellite stations provides a vital opportunity for involvement. When counties establish these stations in Indian communities, they can give Indians a chance to run these polling places. These Indian election officials work with the white officials at the courthouse. They demonstrate that Indians can run elections just as well as whites. They build trust with government officials than can translate into cooperation on other issues.

To put it in O.J. Semans's blunt terms, it's time for Jackson County to "wake up and smell the Indians." Helping Indians vote and elect leaders is good for all of Jackson County and South Dakota. It's what our laws and our commitment to democracy say we should do.

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Sur la table: Rosemarie Cornelius (left) and Emma "Pinky" Iron Plume (right) discuss housing and community development with me where business happens in Manderson: the back table at Pinky's store, 2014.08.18.

Sur la table: Rosemarie Cornelius (left) and Emma "Pinky" Iron Plume (right) discuss housing and community development with me where business happens in Manderson: the back table at Pinky's store, 2014.08.18.

Emma "Pinky" Iron Plume opened Pinky's, the only store in Manderson, South Dakota, thirty years ago. She continues to run the store on BIA Highway 33 today, providing her neighbors and folks from the nearby elementary school and the Oglala Lakota College branch campus a place to buy a few staples and snacks and gather to do business.

Iron Plume serves her neighbors with an even larger economic development project on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Through the Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing, Iron Plume helps Indian families become homeowners, which Iron Plume says is central to personal and community economic security.

The benefits of homebuilding and homeownership are obvious. Building homes creates jobs and economic activity. It addresses the critical housing shortage on the reservation, where Iron Plume sees families doubling and tripling up in the few available houses. Owning a house not only makes a family safer, healthier, and happier but also gives that family a real sense of ownership and a stake in the community that does not exist when a family must bounce from rental to rental or other temporary lodging.

Getting Indian families into new homes isn't easy. Iron Plume says the OST Partnership for Housing used to build homes, like Habitat for Humanity, but found that model too costly to coordinate and carry out. Now the Partnership focuses on educating homeowners and finding allies to help them buy homes.

A key part of that education is financial education. The Partnership helps Indian families learn about credit and savings. Iron Plume says the group warns its clients of predatory lenders, both the payday lenders and the subprime mortgagers who crashed the economy a few years ago.

Once families have a grip on their finances, the Partnership helps them find willing lenders and homes, often the small, affordable Governor's Houses built by state inmates.

The Partnership also helps families find land. Those who have driven through the wide open expanses of Pine Ridge would think that finding available land would be no big deal. But viable building land is hard to find on the reservation. Infrastructure is limited: a lot of places around Manderson, Wounded Knee, and Porcupine don't have electric lines or water pipes. (Pinky also notes that AT&T hauls extra cell-phone transmitters to Sturgis for the Rally but provides unreliable cellular service to Pine Ridge year-round; get with it, AT&T!) The Partnership thus has conversations with utilities and agencies to try to extend infrastructure to make new land available for development.

Where infrastructure exists, land ownership is complicated by fractionation, the slicing up of ownership through inheritance. The Oglala Sioux Tribe is using Cobell settlement money to buy back and consolidate small tracts into viable housing plots. Iron Plume says the tribe will keep ownership of the buy-back land and lease it out to homeowners in 50-year intervals.

So far, the Partnership has helped put over 100 families into homes of their own. The Partnership has now received a grant from the Administration for Native Americans (under the federal Department of Health and Human Services) to help young Indians invest in homeownership and other economic development. The Partnership will use that grant to launch a savings-match program in 2015: young Indians (age 16 to 26) who apply can receive two dollars for every one dollar they place in an "Individual Development Account." The money invested must be earned income, not gifts from Grandma. The IDA money must then be used to buy a house, take postsecondary classes, or start a business. The match goes up to $1,500, so young investors can turn $1,500 into $4,500.

The goal of the grant program, says Iron Plume, is to create assets. Thus, the program will also include an insurance fair to teach its young participants how to protect their assets. The program will offer a marketing workshop to young entrepreneurs to help them expand their sales and create even more assets.

Iron Plume says the Partnership has promoted other projects to help her neighbors with homemaking. Among other things, the Partnership has promoted food self-sufficiency. Iron Plume recognizes that a lot of the prepared foods she sells at Pinky's are not the cheapest or healthiest options. She encourages her neighbors to try making meals from scratch. The Partnership has given out cookbooks. It held a canning workshop last year and has a jelly-making workshop coming up. Iron Plume says a lot of her neighbors garden and derive great satisfaction from that bit of self-sufficiency (not to mention the chance to make maybe one less trip to Walmart in Rapid). She sees local food as an important part of the Partnership's philosophy of centering life on the home.

Pine Ridge and our Indian neighbors face all sorts of challenges, but Pinky Iron Plume views every challenge as an opportunity to find new partners to help. Iron Plume tackling those challenges both as a traditional entrepreneur, selling goods to her neighbors and providing a meeting place for her community, and as a social entrepreneur, helping others use and build their financial well-being. The Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing is a good example of a local effort building cooperation among numerous agencies to make life better on Pine Ridge.

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The United States Department of Justice is now on the record saying that South Dakota is violating the Indian Child Welfare Act in its removal of Indian children from their homes. On Friday, Judge Jeffrey Viken accepted the DOJ's motion to submit an amicus brief in support of the Indian plaintiffs in Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik.

The federal brief affirms the position laid out by the ACLU that South Dakota has denied Indian parents due process in Pennington County's 48-hour custody hearings and illegally separated Indian children from their families and tribes:

DOJ’s brief emphasizes that the federal government has a “special relationship” with Indian tribes and Indian people, and that ICWA was passed by Congress to promote and further that relationship.  ICWA places substantial limits on the ability of state officials to remove Indian children from their homes in order to protect the integrity of Indian families and the survival of Indian tribes.  DOJ expressly criticized positions taken by the Defendants, one of which contended that the protections guaranteed in ICWA did not apply to their 48-hour hearings.  The DOJ brief explains that, contrary to the State’s arguments, ICWA “immediately imposes specific ongoing obligations on state officials” in these 48-hour hearings [ACLU press release, via Lakota Voice, 2014.08.18].

The 24-page brief, signed along with the motion to file it by U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, says to South Dakota, This is what ICWA says, and you're reading it wrong. It explicitly and vigorously rejects South Dakota's contention that we can ignore ICWA in emergency custody hearings.

South Dakota's violation of Indian family rights under ICWA must be remarkable: ACLU attorney Stephen Pevar, who is helping the Lakota plaintiffs argue their case in Rapid City, says this may be the first time since ICWA was enacted in 1978 that the federal government has intervened in a case like this at the District Court level.

The Department of Justice's intervention in Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik makes clear who really stands on the side of Indian families in South Dakota. It's not the co-opted South Dakota Libertarian Party and its cast of clowns who would dismantle government and abandon Indians to assimilation. It's not fake attorney general candidate Chad Haber, who squawks about abuse in the foster care system to exploit Indian children to fill his campaign bank account and blow smoke in front of his and his wife's own corruption.

The real defenders of South Dakota's Indian families are good people who recognize the need for strong laws and strong government to protect due process and tribal integrity from racism and corruption. The real defenders are good people like U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who signed DOJ's amicus brief and the motion to file it, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which has the knowledge and resources to assist Indian families in this case.

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Pat Powers continues to feed his desperate need to insult Rick Weiland. This morning he recycles his tired language about Weiland being an "awful" candidate. His latest attack spins around the shaky thesis that Weiland "shuns" President Obama and thus loses his Democratic base to Obama-loving Larry Pressler.

Reality check: I am Rick Weiland's liberal, Obama-loving base. I like Pressler better than Powers does (insult-addicted Powers today calls Pressler "foppish"), but there is no way Pressler pulls me from Weiland.

As "evidence" of Weiland's shunning the President, Powers says Weiland did not attend the President's visit to "a ND/SD Indian reservation." President Obama visited the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock reservation in June. I get the feeling that if Weiland had traveled to Cannon Ball, 40 miles north of the ND-SD border, Powers would have teased Rick for campaigning where no one could vote for him (and I might have, too!).

Powers the insult-fop (yeah, I can call names, too) doesn't address real policy differences between Weiland and Obama. If he did delve into policy, he'd find that where Weiland diverges from the President, Weiland is actually tacking even more strongly into the Democratic base camp.

Consider health care. Weiland affirms the merits of the Affordable Care Act, but he dings the President for not going far enough. Weiland says the President should have kept the public option on the table, and he supports creating a public option by letting anyone buy into Medicare. That's a great pitch to a Democratic base that craves gutsy Dems not accepting the GOP fear-narratives.

Or consider Keystone XL. The President has helpfully delayed the project, but he's never come out and said no to the Canadian tar-sands export project. Weiland has taken much firmer stands against the pipeline, again cheering the Democratic base.

Weiland agrees with the President on the need for net neutrality, although Rick was ahead of the President in speaking out on the issue.

Even Pat's own SDGOP handlers disagree with Pat's morning burp. The GOP calls Weiland a "loyal foot solider" of President Obama (pick a message, guys!)

Whoever Weiland may be losing to Pressler, it's not the Democratic base. Maybe it's Indies who lean left but get nervous about being called Dems. Maybe it's nostalgic old folks. Maybe it's just a figment of Powers's wishful imagination, lacking for original and accurate arguments to make. But as the campaign kicks into high gear, we'll dismiss the latter, and win over the former as they realize Weiland means business. Weiland is with the President on the good stuff, and where Weiland diverges from the President, Weiland is pushing for even stronger, gutsier Democratic positions that will be good not just for Democrats' aspiring souls but for South Dakota and the country as a whole.

Update 08:37 MDT: If any doubt as to Weiland's credibility as a candidate and a Democratic base booster, consider this announcement fresh from Team Weiland: Rick has just hired fiery Democratic consultant Steve Jarding as senior advisor and spokesman. Jarding works for winners, and he's working for Weiland. Now let's really rumble!

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