During a two-hour layover at the Atlanta airport last month, Montana State University Billings’ Director of American Indian Outreach Reno Charette penned some thoughts that she read to a crowd of about 60 gathered Saturday for Not in Our Town Billings’ Summit on Justice.
“I was inspired to be in a place where Martin Luther King Jr. spent so much time,” she said during a panel session that concluded the conference.
In words that one audience member called “poetic," Charette named some of the ways she combats hate — by “compiling an army of collaborators” and “allowing love and intelligent reason and faith to grow in their own way.”
“Join a war party — or better yet, lead one,” she advised the crowd, a mix of seniors and 20-somethings. But be patient — every bull rider is bucked off 100 times before enjoying his eight seconds of success, she noted. Combat hate with prayer, she suggested, because “hate is no match for the vastness of the universe.”
“I combat hate by thriving,” she said. “My mission may be to wipe you out, but if you come to my home in need, my home is your refuge. I cannot be held back or stepped on. I am Native," she concluded to applause, "and we are still here.”
The Rev. Sara Beck, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, said she’s heard “casual racism” expressed around town, and she once spoke to her father about the comments that sometimes come from “nice church people,” adding they were not from her parishioners. “They are nice people,” her father agreed. “But who are they nice to?”
Ta’jin Perez, program coordinator for Western Native Voice and a member of Billings’ Human Rights Commission, said he sees hate expressed in subtle ways in areas like public education. “Resources haven’t leveled the playing field, and that’s what is most insidious to me,” he said. “Hate speech is awful, but hate can be expressed in many ways.”
Fitzgerald Clark, a Not in Our Town Billings board member, has had the “N-word” hurled at him. But he said he’s more focused on “institutional forms of oppression,” including the barriers to voting.
Following a talk by Western Native Voice’s executive director, Marci McLean-Pollock, he also said he’s “astounded by how openly people disparage Native Americans in this community.”
“We all have a responsibility not to be silent,” he said.
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“I am supposed to talk about white supremacy in a room full of white people,” McLean-Pollock joked. “Maybe it’s OK if I offend a few people.”
It made sense to McLean-Pollock “that Natives aren’t filling this room, because this isn’t our town,” she said. It’s not just the 2016 election “that turned us into hating, violent people,” she said. “One election can’t do that. There’s got to be more to it.”
She said she worries for her children and grandchildren when Native children are followed around by store employees with an eye toward preventing shoplifting.
The response for her is "about forgiveness and playing the hand you’re dealt. You are probably not going to give up your land to a Native American tribe,” she told the crowd, “so we need to step forward in unity to get at the root cause of racism or discrimination of any sort.”
“What do we have to lose if we forgive," she said, "as long as we don’t forget.”
Travis McAdam, research director for the Montana Human Rights Network, opened the event by tracing how bigotry can usurp the language of faith.
“From time to time you see articles about the death of the religious right, but that’s not true,” he said.
McAdam said he notes a common theme from people on the religious right testifying at legislative hearings, including how gay marriage will destroy Western civilization, America is a Christian nation and that abortion and contraception are murder.
“Negative ads and rhetoric can turn people off,” he said. “I think it’s possible to take your view of what you want your community to look like out in the public sphere without attacking anyone.”