We hope effort is more than an empty gesture

We applaud the effort, and at the same time, find ourselves asking, "Why did this take so long?"

Gov. Mike Rounds will officially proclaim a Year of Unity at a Feb. 19 ceremony in the state capitol.

 February marks the 20th anniversary of the Year of Reconciliation in South Dakota, which was announced by the late Gov. George Mickelson as a means to bring all races together.

"This observance was an effort to improve understanding, cooperation and peace among all races in cultures in South Dakota," Gov. Rounds said of the 1990 initiative.

 The 2010 Year of Unity will build upon the legacy and work of those leaders who moved the state forward in the Year of Reconciliation, the governor said.

 "It is my hope, through this Year of Unity, to call upon South Dakotans to promote, celebrate and understand the contributions of all races and cultures in South Dakota," he said.

 "We hope that Year of Unity efforts will be pursued on a community-by-community and person-to-person basis," Gov. Rounds added.

 The governor used his State of the State address on Jan. 12 to announce the new effort to commemorate and advance race relations in the state.

 Leaders of the state's nine Native American tribes, as well as community and state officials have been invited to the Capitol for the Feb. 19 ceremony.

We're happy to see this effort being made to improve race relations in our state. It is an endeavor that has withered on the vine for too long. Twenty years ago, we seemed to be on the right track.

Gov. George Mickelson, in 1990, the 100th  anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, declared a Year of Reconciliation.

More important than that symbolic gesture, however, was his attitude. I think we all remember that Mickelson was serious about improving race relations in the state – of doing more than affixing his signature to a proclamation in an effort to appease people who thought enough wasn't done.

The dreams that many South Dakotans had of an intense focus on the problems of race, and, perhaps, steps South Dakota to take to improve the cruel poverty and other negative living conditions experienced by residents of the state's reservations, seem to come to an abrupt halt in 1993, when Mickelson and other state leaders were killed in an airplane crash.

We should be appreciative of Gov. Rounds' endeavors to proclaim a Year of Unity later this month. We have to admit, however, that we find it a bit troubling that this tiny sign of progress in improving race relations in our state comes, not at the beginning, but near the end of Rounds' time as governor.

So, we hope the governor indeed takes steps to make sure the positive gesture that is about to be made is not merely fluff. We'd like to see some substance.

We'd like to see, for example, the governor follow the lead of the Charles Mix County Commission and the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

In the spring of 2001, those two governing bodies, with assistance from the Community Relations Service (CRS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, signed a CRS-mediated agreement to improve communication, cooperation and race relations.
• to form a permanent County-Tribal Relations Committee to ensure continuing communication, information sharing, and collaboration on issues of common interest.
• to work cooperatively on developing day care and emergency placement of at-risk youth.
• to jointly make a presentation to the Law Enforcement Task Force on the need to explore ways to avoid racial profiling and improve law enforcement-tribal relations.
• to develop and implement a drug-court program and an effective support-aftercare program for youth.
• to meet with education leaders in Lake Andes and Wagner to improve school curriculum and programs on Indian culture, encourage having an Indian counselor in each school, promote more tribal input into decisions affecting Indian youths, and develop strategies for promoting self-esteem and acknowledgment of Indian youth.

We throw this out as merely a starting point. We realize that improving relations between residents of Indian Country and the rest of South Dakota likely will be more complicated than the efforts made between a single county and a single tribe.

For two decades, however, an idea that at least brought some hope to people of our state has, for all intents and purposes, simply has been shelved, gathering dust, not even part of the collective memories of an entire generation of South Dakotans.

It's time to revive that idea of reconciliation. And back it with meaningful action.

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