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South Dakota high school rodeo club cancels annual ‘slave auction’ fundraiser

For decades, the rodeo club at the high school in Faith — located in rural northwest South Dakota — has hosted a “slave auction” fundraiser.
For decades, the rodeo club at the high school in Faith — located in rural northwest South Dakota — has hosted a “slave auction” fundraiser. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
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In the tiny South Dakotan town called Faith, the high school Rodeo Club planned to hold its annual fundraising event next Monday night at the Legion Hall, complete with a pancake supper, bidding on pies and a “Slave/Branding Auction.”

For decades, Rodeo Club members offered a few days of their labor to a rancher in exchange for a donation — and although there have long been calls for clubs across the state to stop labeling this slavery, the name in Faith has stuck. But this year, as a poster circulated on Facebook, Legion Hall host Glenda McGinnis said she received dozens of calls from people around the country wanting to know “how such a racist and hurtful name could be used in 2021.”

“I thought it was a joke. We have the event every year, for about 40 years now,” said McGinnis, vice president of the Community Action Club that owns the Legion Hall in Faith, a town with fewer than 500 residents. “I even got a call from a local cowboy who said: ‘How’s this going down? It’s not right.’ I told him we weren’t doing anything wrong. And he explained, ‘Well, it’s how it was advertised that’s wrong.’ ”

McGinnis further explained: “I didn’t even think of ‘slavery’ in racist terms. It’s just kids work for free to raise money for their club. Now I see; this is a very bad choice of words. But I’m naive enough, I guess.”

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McGinnis said the Rodeo Club’s adviser called her Wednesday afternoon to cancel the event. The club adviser didn’t return calls for comment.

“We had to get all those posters down around town,” said McGinnis.

Many in the area are still stunned it happened in the first place.

“Slave auction? Branding? It’s hateful, racist, and we’re calling it what it is,” said Julian Beaudion, an African American state law enforcement officer who is part of the Coalition for Justice and Equity, which addresses criminal justice issues in South Dakota.

South Dakota’s Democratic Party and community leaders said it was especially disturbing at a time when the nation is grappling with systemic racism and police brutality, a conversation that was reignited last year when a White Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for more than nine minutes, killing him. On Tuesday, a jury found that officer guilty of murder and manslaughter.

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McGinnis said she feels bad for the high school students because this is the main fundraiser for their club, which operates independently from the high school and provides scholarships and money for events.

State Rep. Linda Duba (D) said the club had the opportunity to change the name and still host the event.

“Instead they displayed a tone deafness that is inexcusable,” Duba said. “We are better than this.”

School district officials reached this week said the fundraiser was not an official school event and then hung up the phone. But the event did appear on the high school’s calendar.

In 2018, a “slave auction” was held as a fundraiser for the Pierre/Fort Pierre High School Rodeo Club, about 125 miles southeast of Faith. David Kastner, who is Native American, drew attention to the issue, and a local television station described him as a “lone man with a concern about the name.”

The club met to discuss changing the name, but members couldn’t think of another name and kept it as is, according to the Capital Journal newspaper.

“Really any name that doesn’t treat buying and selling a human being in a lighthearted fashion would be better,” Kastner told the Capital Journal at the time.

Kastner is now living in Ann Arbor, Mich., and said he is not surprised the issue has come up again.

“Growing up on a reservation in South Dakota, there’s always been racism, and this goes back to a general whitewashing of history,” he said. “I became a real lightning rod, but I was trying to say it’s way past time to have this talked about.”

About 85 percent of those living in South Dakota are White. Nearly 2 percent of the state’s population is Black, nearly 9 percent is Native American or Alaska Native, and 1.4 percent is Asian, according to the latest census data.

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Beaudion said that makes it even more important that the next generation learns about “hatred and the culture that promotes it.”

“There’s so much pain and trauma in that name for Black people being enslaved and being branded in the palms and shoulders and cheeks. If someone calls this cancel culture — why wouldn’t we want to cancel racism and teach the next generation not to hate?” Beaudion said.

Angelica Mercado-Ford, a community activist in Sioux Falls, S.D., said people have been fiercely debating the issue on social media. Some have said they can’t believe it’s taken so long for the club to drop the fundraiser or change the name.

“Other White people say they don’t see it as offensive. It’s easy for you to say if you are not Black,” said Mercado-Ford. “We stress intent vs. impact. And that’s why we are asking for support.”

South Dakota Voices for Justice said that “canceling the event does not cancel racism” and that the group will request that the state require all school districts to teach sensitivity and the history of slave auctions, including how “many enslavers would mark their new ‘property’ with custom brands so they could easily recognize the people who tried to escape.”

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After Dakota News Now posted an article about the fundraiser on Facebook, some readers responded by offering new names for the event so it could still go forward, such as “Wrangler for Hire” or “Hired Hand Extravaganza.”

Others mocked those who were upset as “sensitive garbage” or said they wanted to donate to the club anyway.

In one particularly heated exchange, one person posted that “Slavery is offensive.”

Another poster responded, “Only to snowflakes like you.”

Another chimed in, “It’s called cultural sensitivity based on history . . . sad.”

State Sen. Ryan Maher, a Republican who represents areas near Faith, said he grew up with the phrase being used and that ranchers would donate $300 to $400 for rodeo club fees in exchange for kids’ labor. He called the controversy “absolutely crazy,” saying, “This is western South Dakota. Most people don’t even know we are here; they need to get off their high horse and let these kids be kids and do their own thing.”

He added: “Most importantly mind their own business. We have our culture, and you have yours. If you don’t like ours, don’t move here and don’t come out here.”

He said he didn’t find the use of “slave auction” offensive and said it was meant as a fun event.