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WOSTER: Celebrating the lives of two men who perished in 2017

I'd be remiss to leave 2017 without a mention of the passing of two men who helped me learn more about South Dakota and the Native American people who live here.

I'm speaking of Dennis Banks, an Anishinaabe from Minnesota, and Lehman Brightman, a Creek and Lakota born on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Banks' death in October generated considerable public comment. Brightman's death in June drew less attention in this part of the country, but he was an early, important figure in the struggle for Native American rights. The first time we met, he told me I didn't know much about the subject.

I encountered each man during news assignments usually involving civil rights protests or confrontations. We weren't friends, but each — and many others then and over the years — helped me become a better reporter.

Although born, raised and educated in South Dakota —— within a stone's throw of the Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations — I came of age knowing little about the native people born, raised and educated here. I knew Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud from the Saturday matinees. But I didn't connect those warriors or places like Wounded Knee to South Dakota. I didn't know much at all about Native Americans.

In first grade in Reliance, a kid from Lower Brule and I cut our palms with my pocket knife and became blood brothers. We'd seen it in a movie. Big deal at the time, but I don't even have a scar today.

In high school in Chamberlain, I ran on relay teams with a couple of guys from up near Crow Creek. It didn't matter to me that they were Dakota and I was white. It only mattered that if each of us ran as fast as we could, we had our best chance of doing well as a team.

Years later, another teammate told me one of those Dakota classmates had written him a letter describing the discrimination he'd felt in our school because he was Indian. That surprised me. I'd seen him only as a classmate, a teammate, a good runner. But we lived in different worlds, and I wasn't aware of what went on in his world.

Rather sad, really.

My education in racial matters in South Dakota was of necessity. As a young Associated Press writer, I covered multiple Indian rights events in the early 1970s — the aftermath of the Trail of Broken Treaties and the Raymond Yellow Thunder incident in Nebraska in 1972, Wounded Knee in 1973 and the killing of the two FBI agents near Oglala in 1975. I needed an immersion course in the tribes and peoples of my own state to even begin to understand what I wrote.

Banks helped with that. So did people like Russell Means and other activists. So did many people who disagreed with the activists. No one Indian spoke for all Indians. When any of them talked about treaties or reservations or history, I'd research to understand and verify what they said. Sometimes I'd find disagreement, and I'd note that in stories, too. I listened, researched, wrote and learned.

Over years of reporting, I talked with many, many others who assisted my education. Some were tribal leaders, elected and traditional. Some were newspaper publishers or nurses or school teachers or cops or government officials. Some were elders or college students or authors or musicians or cooks or bus drivers or bronc riders or former athletes. Each in their way taught me something.

Brightman was one of the very first. He was a big man, maybe 6-6, with shoulders as wide as a doorway. He helped organize the takeover of Alcatraz Island in the late 1960s and was a vocal champion of native rights for all of his life. He visited the AP bureau in Pierre in 1970 to talk about his investigation into problems in Indian schools in the state. As we talked, me asking questions, Brightman responding, he paused and said, "You really don't know anything about us, do you?''

I really didn't, no. All these years later, I still don't know enough, and I'm still trying to learn.