The UCC's 14-member Hate Crimes Advisory Group visited Rapid City, S.D., and the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on April 25-27 to gather information about numerous hate crimes that have been perpetrated against the Indian community there in recent years.
Participants visited Justice Camp, a memorial and protest site where the bodies of two Lakota men were found beaten and murdered in June 1999.
The killings of Wilson "Wally" Black Elk Jr. and Ron Hard Heart remain unsolved. In addition, since May 1998, the bodies of eight men, six of them American Indian, have been found drowned in shallow waters, but police maintain no signs of foul play.
"People are being killed with absolutely no regard for life," says Juanita Helphrey, minister and team leader for Justice and Witness Ministries' Racial Justice Ministry Team and convener of the hate crimes group.
The Rev. Marc Stewart of the South Dakota Conference and the Rev. Susan Huffman of First Congregational UCC in Rapid City participated in the information gathering sessions.
The group also heard an update about efforts to challenge the exploitation occurring in White Clay, Neb., a tiny town just over the state line comprised almost exclusively of taverns and liquor stores that prey on the alcoholism of the region's Indian population.
"The White Clay issue is a major concern," Helphrey says. "You go through that community and you can witness the blatant abuse of those who are already functioning with high rates of alcoholism, and you wonder about the hearts of those who can exploit others in this manner."
The Hate Crimes Advisory Group is developing a long-term strategy for how best to partner with justice advocates in the Rapid City area. "We heard over and over about how the people there experience terrible hate crimes and blatant racism, and people say Ôthat's awful' but very little happens to effect change," Helphrey says. "There is a lot of work to do."