Lakota Country Times editor Brandon Ecoffey is one of the few voices in the press who has spoken up in defense of Stacy Phelps, the former GEAR UP administrator now charged with felony conspiracy and falsification of evidence in his handling of federal grant money intended for American Indian education. Ecoffey says the media’s coverage of Attorney General Marty Jackley’s release of evidence of spending by Phelps’s American Indian Institute for Innovation may miss a crucial point about the nature of the GEAR UP summer program and the American Indian kids it serves:
Last week KELO again created more click-bait for their Facebook page when they produced a headline that read “State: Phelps Spent More Than $200k in Gear Up Grant Money On Meals, Personal Items.” Now the headline reads exactly the way the State wanted it too. It makes it seem like Phelps had simply went on a spending spree where he was living lavishly by shopping at Sam’s Club and scamming the tax-payer out of tens of thousands with meals at the “swanky” Olive Garden. It makes me wonder if KELO had ever taken the time prior to all this to visit a Gear Up summer program prior to this? Did they know that many of the kids who attended this program would come with little more than the clothes on their backs and that the program would supply these kids with what they needed? KELO must be aware that many Lakota students come from homes that are so poverty ridden that school supplies would never be a priority in a family’s budget. Then again maybe they are as out of touch with our people as it seems [Brandon Ecoffey, “Has the AG’s Office Ever Backed Native Issues?” Lakota Country Times, 2016.06.30].
Ecoffey’s concern aligns with a point raised by Dakota Free Press commenter Donald Pay, that what looks like excessive spending on meals from our perspective may be an expression of normal Lakota cultural practice:
I worked for an Indian organization one summer. One of the things I noticed was that when board members or others working with us came to Rapid City, the organization would take people out for lunch or dinner to conduct business. I thought it was excessive. In my white way of thinking you could just do business in the office and have people go their merry way. I came to realize that feeding folks was part of the cultural norm among Native Americans [Donald Pay, comment, Dakota Free Press, 2016.07.03].
I’m not sure potlatch philanthropy and multiculturalism qualify dinner at Seattle’s Space Needle as an acceptable use of federal education grant money. One gains status from giving one’s own resources, not grants from Uncle Sam.
But we can certainly understanding Ecoffey’s concern about cultural bias from a Native-detached media that could be sitting up and barking for a Native-hostile Attorney General:
Those of us out here on the western side of South Dakota have learned to take a wait and see approach to any case filed against a Native person by the office of Marty Jackley. Each time there is an issue involving Native interests his office has conveniently taken the side most detrimental to us. Just look at the stances the state has taken against the Indian Child Welfare Act and in favor of the Keystone pipeline. Are there any issues that the AG’s office has decided to back Native people on? [Ecoffey, 2016.06.30]
On Thursday, the Board of Regents heard a generally positive report on GEAR UP’s recovery under Regental management, prompting Regent Harvey Jewett to ask, “No checks to casinos?” On Friday, GEAR UP wrapped up its first post-scandal summer program at Black Hills State in Spearfish. The Regents, running GEAR UP for the first time after several years of apparent fiscal mismanagement by the Mid-Central Education Cooperative in Platte, cut the academic camp from six weeks to three and cut participation from nearly 300 to 98. The new GEAR UP will reach more students with four regional programs for middle-school students. Some schools held off participating, telling new GEAR UP co-director June Apaza they want to see how the Regents do in their first year before recommitting to the scandal-stained program.