Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning
Persephone, left, and Fidelilty Eastman prepare to present to the Sisseton School Board in Sisseton, South Dakota.

Manning: Youth Continue Their Battle Against Sisseton 'Redmen'

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Stories of strength are all around us, and often times, they emerge from deep within the hearts of our youth.

On August 3, two young Dakota women, Persephone and Fidelity Eastman, of the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, stood before the board of the Sisseton School District in Sisseton, South Dakota, respectfully asking them to retire their disparaging moniker, and all activities associated with it.  The moniker of Sisseton High School is the Redmen.

“I went into the school board meeting thinking we have to hit three birds with one stone: the name, the logo, and their homecoming coronation, and as always, while thinking and going about things in a positive way,” Persephone Eastman said.   

The two young women, both soft spoken and tactful, first introduced themselves in their Dakota language, shared facts and opinions about the mascot, and then spoke of the psychological impact of stereotypical imagery. When finished, they asked the board if they had any questions, to which they responded with head shakes of “No.” The young women shook the hands of each board member, bidding them gently with, “Pidamaya,” (“Thank You,” in the Dakota language). Even amidst the stern faces of a silent school board, the girls were exceptionally poised and courageous.

Yet, their plight is especially complex, as the issue spans not only generations, but jurisdictions, and defenses of “traditions” of both non-Native and Native communities.

Last February, a larger group of high school girls courageously reopened this contentious social justice issue, not only in the community of Sisseton, but the greater Lake Traverse Indian Reservation.

In the small town of Sisseton, the Indian mascot controversy has persisted for generations, only to be snuffed out by staunch defenders of the Redmen. Yet it hasn’t just been the moniker, “Redmen,” that has been controversial. For the Sisseton High School homecoming festivities, non-Native students engage in acts of “playing Indian,” – costumes, feathers, and all, and they imitate a Dakota ceremony complete with a fictitious medicine man and a vision quest.

Sisseton High School Homecoming coronation. Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning.

Reportedly, the school was given permission by a tribal member some decades back to do conduct the coronation this way.  

And although the city of Sisseton does sit within the borders of the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, a history of allotment has resulted in not only a checker-boarded land base, in which the Sisseton municipality does not sit on tribal land, but there is also a mixed population of Native, non-Native, and many representing blood lines from both groups. This has contributed to some sharp divisions in the mascot controversy, and some very blurry lines, too.

Since the 1970s, one tribal member, who wishes to remain anonymous, peacefully protested the Redmen moniker and coronation activities. In one incident, a boisterous defender of the mascot spit in the protestor’s face.    

The issue again resurfaced more publicly in the 90s. Tribal member, Dionne Lake, attended Sisseton High School, and in her junior year, she submitted an editorial opposing the mascot to the Watertown Public Opinion Newspaper. The result was a barrage of backlash. She faced taunting not only in the school from her peers, but from teachers and other adults in the community. When the harassment was directed at her grandmother, the pressure became too much to continue.

“As a young Dakota, I always worked to make my kunsi (grandmother) proud of me,” Lake said. “When people began saying negative things to her and she had to defend me that was when I stopped talking about the mascot issue. I could handle the name calling and the verbal challenges, but I refused to have my kunsi field negative remarks or questions because of me.”

Even despite the history of the controversy and the unknowns of the many interpersonal outcomes, a group of courageous young Dakota high school students recently reignited the debate. It all began at the height of their high school basketball season.

After months of thoughtful deliberation, girls on the Tiospa Zina Tribal School basketball team organized a peaceful demonstration during one of their games against the Sisseton Redmen. The game was hosted at Sisseton High School.

While the team originally wanted to wear T-shirts with the phrase “Not Your Mascot,” during their warm up time, they were advised, instead, to wear their T-shirts underneath their jerseys.  Still, they ordered enough shirts for crowd supporters to wear, too. The result was a Tiospa Zina crowd, comprised of 300 black T-shirts, reading “Not Your Mascot.”

The Damakota Youth Group. Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning.

Tiospa Zina won the game, leaving visible tension on the court between opposing teams. 

At the end of the game, many girls on the Tiospa Zina basketball team removed their jerseys for a photo in their “Not Your Mascot,” T-shirts, and young men sang an honor song around them as the gym emptied. The girls hugged each other, and many crowd supporters came down and hugged them too.

But the response and series of events that came after quickly turned the community into a firestorm of heated debate and social violence directed at the Tiospa Zina girls basketball team.

Debates took place immediately on social media, in public venues, and even in workplaces. 

As the T-shirts read, “Damakota: I am Dakota,” the group, at the time, became known as the Damakota Youth Group. They set up a Facebook page, and immediately grew in national popularity. The girls were interviewed by local television stations and numerous media outlets.  Yet, the local Sisseton newspaper, the Sisseton Courier, did not print a single story on the demonstration.

The back of the Damakota T-shirt. Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning.

Some community members on social media blamed the young women of Damakota for inciting community division. Pressure was definitely mounting. What began as a group of approximately 12 young women who originally organized the event, was eventually whittled down to a much smaller number.

Still, the Damakota Youth Group organized a successful forum and press conference, comprised of local, state, and national representatives, and a standing-room-only crowd of media, and supporters of both sides of the issue. There were not any members of the Sisseton School Board present even though they were extended invitations.

After the forum, the young women of the Damakota Youth Group quietly continued their efforts to remove the mascot, while focusing on academics at the end of their school year.  They were invited to events throughout surrounding areas, honored, hugged, and thanked by many humble elders, some with tears in their eyes.

Following the recent board meeting, Fidelity Eastman remarked: “If change doesn't come about then we have to take steps to go above the school board and find ways to educate people on this topic. I have also personally found a new passion in teaching about the harmful nature of Native American mascots.”

Many of the members of the Damakota youth group have, since, graduated high school, and are now in different locations attending college. They continue to support the cause from afar, and now, many other youth are joining in to stand up for traditions sacred to them, while also calling for the retirement of the Redmen moniker.

Gabe Akipa, a junior at Tiospa Zina, remarked: “As Dakota, we wear feathers for special ceremonies and special occasions. We value them and we earn every feather we receive. This is why it is hurtful when people make a mockery of our traditional regalia. This has a negative impact on our people, and our ways. It is time for the Redmen mascot to change.”

A humble group of committed youth continues to steadily build. They are passionate, powerful, and armed with a gentle persistence for us all to learn from. Even amidst the backlash, they stand resolute as thoughtful and intelligent warriors. They continue to set examples for us all.      

Slow and steady wins the race, young relatives. You are going to win, and as a matter of fact, you already have.

Sisseton School District Superintendent Stephen Schulte did not respond to a request for comment.

Sarah Sunshine Manning.

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.

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