Published March 8, 2017
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on the ACLU Montana website in the Indigenous Stories section. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
On January 21, 2017, Brandy and Elsworth GoesAhead (Blackfeet/Eastern Cherokee & Apsaalooké), Emerine Whiteplume (Arapaho/Apsaalooké), Whitney Holds (Apsaalooké) and Emerine and Whitney’s son were standing outside the Reed Point High School waiting to be let in to watch their children on the Plenty Coups’ basketball team play against Reed Point. They were told by Reed Point’s Athletic Director that they needed to wait outside, but once the Pryor parents noticed that Reed Point fans were being let in, they became very confused. The confusion was addressed by the Athletic Director who told them that since there was not enough Reed Point staff, they “they were only letting the white people in.”
Meg Singer, ACLU’s Indigenous Justice Outreach Coordinator, met with the GoesAhead and Whiteplume-Hold families when the community of Pryor came together to address the issues of racism in Montana. Their exclusive interview is below:
How did you feel when you were told that you couldn’t enter the public space because you were Native?
Emerine Whiteplume: My daughter is on the girls’ team. We arrived early at Reed Point (RP), like we always do. I don’t know why we couldn’t get in, but there was a reason. We were waiting for about 15 minutes until Brandy and Elsworth GoesAhead arrived. They knocked and then the same thing, we were ignored and we weren’t let in. Then a few other players came with their parents. An older gentleman with his seat chair came to the door, the RP staff came back to the door let him in and then said, “We’re only letting white people in.” Closes the door behind them. We were standing in shock and awe. We didn’t confront her. It was plain and simple and unbelievable. I still can’t understand why she would say what she did.
Elsworth GoesAhead: My wife [Brandy] and Emerine posted a small statement to Facebook. I got into the basketball game and I was still trying to wrap my head around what had just taken place. I wrote a few words: “Today I was reminded of my place.” This is the kind of stuff we deal with all the time. It brings back a lot of issues growing up. It’s crazy how people who are different are treated in a society. You’re supposed to look this way; you’re not the right color. I feel it all the time because it’s how I get treated.
Brandy GoesAhead: We weren’t making a scene or talking to people as they were let in. We were just standing there and when the staff member came to open the door to let Reed Point fans in, that’s when she said, “We don’t have any workers so we’re only letting the white people in.” I posted a Facebook status that went viral. I had 75 comments and 20 shares. There were people in Arizona who were concerned and even contacted the Superintendent at Reed Point about their concerns.
Whitney Holds: It was the Warrior fans that were very upset. We’re very quiet people. I know that racism is out there but I’ve never had it directed at me. This was the first time. I didn’t know how to take it. All five of us were so shocked. “Did that just happen?” It was so subtle. But she said it so everyone there could hear it.
Why is it important for you to stand up against incidents of racism and discrimination?
Elsworth: What do you do when something like this happens? Do you yell, scream? If you do then it’s so easy for people to then turn it around on you, then it’s your fault for reacting. I’m so grateful that we held our tongues. I wrote a statement to Plenty Coups so that they could get involved in it with Reed Point. The Pryor school board members reached out to me and expressed their concerns. I wanted to hold someone accountable. Tuesday we took matters into out own hands and wrote the email to Reed Point.
Brandy: Emerine and Whitney’s 10 years old son was standing there and heard how his parents were treated. He’s 10 and he was treated that way.
Whitney: We all heard it. My son turned to us and asked, “Are all white people like this”, and I said, “No, son. They’re not.” I don’t want him to look at someone and expect that they’re going treat him a certain way because of his skin color.
Emerine: Montana is a different atmosphere. I’ve never had anything like this directed to me but with our son, we’ve had to have discussions with him. He plays football, and even in that league he’s often only one of a few other Native players. He’s already experienced microagressions based on the fact that he is Indian, so we try to explain to him that if he goes from Pryor to Billings, he might be treated differently. He knows that there are differences, but we have taught him to be friends with everyone.
Elsworth: That week after the incident. I felt like I was carrying the biggest weight on my shoulders; I couldn’t sleep, and I was filled with so much hurt and anger. You try to rationalize it, and then you start thinking why. Then you start thinking about your kids and family; I started thinking about my nephew who is 11 and just started playing basketball. I feel so bad for him knowing what he will have to deal with when he gets older and starts playing basketball.
Whitney: I’m a guy who keeps things bottled up. I’m still processing it. I’ve been through a lot this past month. I’ve had three deaths in three weeks within the family and it’s pretty tough. And then this happened. I still don’t know what to think.
There are people in Montana who’ve experienced similar situations like this and have similar stories. What would you tell them?
Emerine: When we started talking about the options we could have. I didn’t expect that we could have options to address this incident or to talk to someone about this. It happens to people so much it’s just so normalized. We talk about it, but that’s where it ends. So to have it get this far, to have people to talk to, is so new. It’s a little scary, I don’t want any backlash. But this isn’t about me; I’m not trying to be selfish. I’m just trying to get the point across that racism is alive and we do have to make a stand. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s everyone’s problem.
Whitney: If you’re ever in this situation, then speak out and don’t be afraid to let people know what’s going on. This is a situation that has happened in some sort of way, and to let them know they’re not alone and they don’t have to be afraid to speak out. We’re doing this for each other. That’s how we as a people become stronger and united. That’s the best thing, being united and standing up for each other’s rights. It’s been so helpful to know that there are options out there. People need to know their rights on discrimination. We talk about it, but that’s as far as it goes. There’s nothing ever done, and I think we don’t think anything can be done. It’s been so common for so long.
Elsworth: I think if RP felt the repercussion of one person’s action, it would change the behavior. It won’t wipe it out. We care for the people who think that way. They are raised this way and it’s normal for them. But if they implement training where this learned behavior can be unlearned, it would be amazing. It’s time to start educating those who think this is OK, to help them know that this isn’t right. It starts with us, and I don’t want anyone to have to go through this. You can feel so helpless when something like this happens. I want to protect my family and others.
Brandy: Can we make things better for our nieces and nephews? Can we make it better for them? How do we change that for them? I think that everybody is afraid to say anything because they feel like it’s not going to go anywhere. But when we had that community meeting, there were people standing behind us. It was good to know because Elsworth said to me, “I feel like we’re going to be alone in this fight”. But we weren’t. We need to stand up for one another especially in instances like this which are so wrong. If we don’t pursue something, then it will be forgotten and swept under the rug. And that’s what they’re waiting for. I just want to make a change and the change starts now.
ACLU of Montana has issued a demand letter to the Superintendent of Reed Point. We will continue to offer support to the GoesAhead, Whiteplume/Hold families and the Pryor community.