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Wagner writer promotes racial reconciliation

Vince Two Eagles, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, writes columns on American Indian history and culture to promote reconciliation in his hometown of Wagner. (Submitted photo)

WAGNER -- One of Vince Two Eagles' favorite stories is about his great-great-grandfather, Zephier Rencountre.

"His story is about how hate between him and white men that were with one of the fur trading companies, just how hate destroys a person," Two Eagles said. "It just consumes you and eats you alive, and that's kind of what racism is."

An enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, Two Eagles knows something about racism. The 59-year-old Lakota man said racial prejudices still plague his hometown of Wagner.

"It just destroys communities and keeps people at odds when they don't need to be," he said.

But Two Eagles said he, with help from others, is working to change that. About four years ago, he said representatives from South Dakota State University and the Northwest Area Foundation based in Minneapolis, Minn., identified Wagner as one of 42 communities in South Dakota that could benefit from their work in poverty relief.

A survey conducted by the two entities identified one of the possible factors involved with the economic problems: adult education, "or lack thereof," Two Eagles said. There may be "three Rs" in education (reading, writing and 'rithmetic), but in this community, Two Eagles said there needs to be a fourth "R" discussed -- racism.

"People felt in those initial meetings that racism had played a big role into the continuation of poverty," Two Eagles said.

'The Rez of the Story'

That triggered what Two Eagles called Racism Study Circles, based on a curriculum developed by the Center for Democracy. "That takes you through a six-week process of discussing the issue of racism," he said.

Structured into small groups of 12 to 14 people, a mix of American Indian and white people, Two Eagles said for the first two weeks, members attend two-hour sessions intended to "build relationships."

"You explain how you got your name, you start to learn about each other in more personal ways. Then you move into heritage," Two Eagles said.

Someone might bring a Bible, or some beadwork; Two Eagles brought his flute. "Then you explain what it means," he said. After that, Two Eagles said the groups spend the two weeks delving into "factual stuff."

"What is racism?" Two Eagles said. "You get an idea what people think they are, then you come up with some workable definitions. Then you're kind of on the same page." Finally, the last two sessions are action-focused.

"You start talking about your community," he said. "What's everybody's ideas on how do we address these issues."

Each group tries to come up with two or three doable action steps. Two Eagles, who was in one of the first groups, said the first action step focused on the Wagner newspaper. "People felt it lacked a Native point of view," he said. "The opportunity presented itself, so I volunteered."

After a brief meeting with the Wagner Post's editor, Two Eagles' "The Rez of the Story" column came to be. Two Eagles said it's an homage to Paul Harvey's well-known catchphrase. "I kind of fashioned it after that," Two Eagles said.

"It gives me a chance to express what I think in a constructive way, and I try to use it as a conduit for our story, our emerging story, a story of a community that's bound together by geography and a converging history and future that we can't escape," he said. "We're here together. If we're going to continue to survive, let alone prosper, we've got to figure out ways to partner and work together."

That story of reconciliation, inspired by his great-great-grandfather, is always in Two Eagles' mind as he writes his columns.

"I try to bridge the gap, especially the cultural gap between the white community and the Indian community," he said. "I try to educate the white community about what goes on in the Indian community."

Sometimes he writes about the history of his people, such as an account of Indian corn harvesting methods prior to European settlements reaching the United States.

"We had already developed 400 different varieties of corn," he said. "Indian people understood plant husbandry. It takes a high degree of thought and sophistication to think of all the different branches of science that are involved."

Another column discussed the roads in America, many of which were originally carved out by American Indians, particularly the mobile Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux tribes.

"Our people were nomadic, so they traveled a lot, to follow the buffalo," Two Eagles said. "Most of the highway systems in this country are based on the pathways the Indian people were already using."

Other times, Two Eagles said he responds to current events, such as the recent death of an infant in the Wagner area. It is alleged that drugs were involved in the baby's death, who was in the care of a couple who have tribal membership.

Two Eagles said the matter created outrage -- as infant death always does -- but took an ugly turn, blaming the Indian community as a whole.

"They tend to think that's the way Indian people live, but that's not normal; that's an aberration, as it would be in any community," he said. His column, he said, is a way to "let the white people know" such cases are not cultural norms.

"This doesn't go on every day. This is not something normal," he said. "I try to educate the people. Indian people are a lot more than just the stereotypes."

It's hard to reach past those stereotypes, though, Two Eagles said, many of which have been perpetuated by popular culture, including films in particular.

"I remember growing up seeing cowboy and Indian movies, and wanting to cheer for the Indians, but I didn't dare," he said. "They kind of paint us as somewhat stupid, not very ambitious."

One of the most prominent, he said, is the mysterious origin of the term "red man" as an Indian identifier. One of Two Eagles' columns dealt with that topic specifically, delving into the history of the term, which did not become prominent in use until the 18th century when Thomas Jefferson became one of the first to use the term 'red' to identify American Indians and refer to the "tri-color" races in America.

For Two Eagles, whose skin is more brown than red, the moniker has never made sense. "I think I saw non-Indians who looked more red than we did," he said. "Hopefully, some of those stereotypes will start to melt."

Two Eagles said he has long been an advocate of reconciliation efforts between all races and sees dialogue as the first step toward reaching that. That's how he views his column: A chance to start a conversation.

"The conversation has to continue, so out of that conversation we come to a better understanding of each other," he said. "We can move forward, hopefully not get bogged down by history."

For a people whose history is fraught with conflict, however, he said there has to be a delicate balance between remembering and still moving forward.

"History is only an illusion; it only exists in our head," Two Eagles said. "Simultaneously we can't sweep events under the rug. We have to constructively dialogue to be able to put events to rest."

The author said he tries to maintain a positive tone in every column, no matter what he is discussing, which is perhaps why he has gotten nothing but positive feedback from his readers.

"I have always gotten good feedback from both communities," he said. "It's a lot easier to catch bees with honey than it is with vinegar." After a few years of writing, someone suggested Two Eagles compile his columns into a book. Last year, he published the 155-page collection, also titled "The Rez of the Story."

Two Eagles was featured as a presenter at the 2012 South Dakota Festival of Books in September in Sioux Falls.

"Gatherings like that are so important," Two Eagles said. "You never know who you're going to meet. ... The more you expand your circle, the more effective, especially as a writer, I think you can be."

With one book under his belt, Two Eagles said he's set his sights on a novel about one of the chiefs who signed the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868.

Until then, Two Eagles said he will continue to write his columns and work toward reconciliation for the Yankton Sioux Tribe, and Indian people all over the United States.

"It helps to understand why people live the way they do if we're going to embrace diversity in our community; we've got to recognize that people can speak different languages and dress differently ... We don't all have to be blond-haired, blue-eyed and white skinned," he said. "The idea of the homogenized American is pretty much dead, and that's good I think."

More information on Two Eagles' columns and books is available at