Nearly 100 students, staff and community members of United Tribes Technical College crowded into the lower level of the Jack Barden Center to learn about the history of the civil rights movement and today's Indian activism.
"We are a part of Martin Luther King Jr. Day," United Tribes President David Gipp told the crowd Monday morning. "It is a very important part of our lives because he sought people rights for everyone ... He is, in a lot of ways, like our Indian leaders."
Keynote speaker Chase Iron Eyes gave a brief history of the civil rights movement and its leaders, including Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. He emphasized King's dedication to nonviolent protests.
"Civil disobedience is a very powerful tool,"Iron Eyes said. "We see it today in the Occupy movement."
He spoke also of Native American struggles to attain civil rights.
"In the same way that the black struggle had a peaceful arm and a forceful arm, our struggle did as well," he said, noting the National Indian Youth Council, formed in the 1960s and the American Indian Movement, which formed in 1968. Iron Eyes said he wasn't addressing whether the actions of groups or individuals were right or wrong.
"These things happened and they informed who we are today," he said.
Iron Eyes compared the goals of the civil rights movement to what Native Americans are struggling to attain today. Like African Americans during the civil rights movement, Native Americans want equal access to capital and freedom of speech, expression and assembly, he said, noting that some Native Americans in South Dakota are still struggling for equal access to voting.
"We want some of those rights, we definitely do. We're U.S. citizens. But we also are citizens of states and tribes, we have other concerns and other responsibilities," he said.
Iron Eyes said Native Americans are unique in their struggle for land and sacred sites and their need to protect the Earth.
"We have a responsibility to protect the land. That's one of the fundamental things that affects our activism and our response ... the land is where we derive our identity," he said.
Olivia Spotted Bear, a sophomore elementary education major at UTTC, said she found the comparison interesting and eye-opening.
"We can relate to each other in past experiences," she said.
Reach reporter Mara Van Ells at 250-8251 or email@example.com.