MN VOICES | Syd Beane: “You learn organizing by doing organizing”


Growing up at the height of the Civil Rights Movement inspired Syd Beane, 68, to become a community organizer/community developer and fight for Native Americans. For nearly 40 years he traversed the country advocating for Indians and others invisible to those in power. In 1993, Beane moved to Minnesota, ending an exile imposed on the Dakota 150 years ago. From his charming, rustic home in Plymouth, MN, Beane talked about his career, his beliefs and the struggles Native Americans face.

Here is his distinctive Minnesota voice: (Scroll to bottom for audio and video)

Planting the seeds for change

I come from a family of reformists. My great grandfather and my great uncle were actually involved in forming the first national Indian organization. My great grandfather (John Eastman) was a Presbyterian minister; one of the first Native American ministers. My great uncle (Charles Eastman) was one of the first Native American doctors and probably the first prolific Native American writers that became well read internationally. So, I grew up in a family that was exposed to the careers and professions that many Indians were excluded from. I was fortunate in that regard.

I was born on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. My parents worked for the Flandreau Indian School. I grew up in a boarding school environment. Federal policy didn’t allow kids of parents at the boarding school to attend so we were bused to a public school in the small town. The Indian schools focused on trades. I was exposed to public education, which tends to be more eclectic. I think I had more opportunities to advance educationally and therefore end up with graduate degrees. If the policy had been that I could have gone to those schools, I may have gone the trade route.

Syd Beane’s Notable Accomplishments

• In 1965, he graduated with BA from Yankton College, So Dakota. Upon graduation, he taught high school political science in Jasper, MN.

• In 1969 he graduated with Masters in Social Work from Arizona State University

• In 1970, he was accepted in the Industrial Areas Foundation’s Community Organizing Program in Chicago.

• In 1971, he received a 3-year fellowship from the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation. Beane returned to Arizona where he held a variety of positions including Asst. Director-Southwester Indian Development., Exec. Director-Phoenix Indian Center, Asst. to Exec Director-Intertribal Council of Arizona, and Asst. Professor-Dir. of American Indian Projects at ASU, School of Social Work. In addition, he co-hosted 21st Century Native Americans TV show for eight years.

• In 1983, he moved to California and worked for Center of Community Change to help rebuild Los Angeles after the 1983 riots. Beane also created the Native Media and Technology Network (NMTN), then partnered with FOX entertainment Group (Slumdog Millionaire and Juno) to create a national program to train Native Americans in all aspects of the TV/film industry.

• In 1993, he moved to Minnesota ending a 150-year Dakota exile. In the Twin Cities, Beane utilizes his community organizing and community development skills with the Indian community on Franklin Avenue. Beane is also designing a community development/community organizing degree program at MCTC for which he will teach the first class in Spring 2010. He has retained his position as National Coordinator for NMTN.

• In 2008, he produced the first Native American film to be aired on commercial television titled “Native Nations, Standing Together for Civil Rights. It is also the first movie written, directed and produced with an all-Indian crew.

• He is attempting to market an Indian television adventure series titled Native Explorer

• He is currently working on a film about his great uncle Charles Eastman titled OHIYESA: The Soul of a Indian.

Looking for answers, finding Saul Alinsky

Minnesota is my original homeland. My family was exiled from Minnesota in 1862 from the Dakota war; all Dakota were exiled. That’s what drove me, a certain sense of loss and anger. Wanting to understand the policies behind it, I started studying history and political science (in college). I understood American Indian policy was tied heavily to Arizona. I thought if I wanted to change policies pertaining to Native people, I ought to go where there’d be the greatest opportunity for me to interact with people involved with that policy.  I applied to graduate school at Arizona State University and got a full scholarship.

While I was in graduate school, I read books by Saul Alinsky–Rules for Radicals, Revelry for Radicals–and I got interested. Saul Alinsky was recognized as the founder of modern day organizing. I wanted to understand him. He had this institute in Chicago called the Industrial Areas Foundation. So I went there. I told them I was out of grad school and wanted to know what I had to do. They told me the first thing I had to do is unlearn everything they taught me in grad school.

I was the first American Indian to go into the Industrial Area’s Foundation longterm (18-month) program. But I didn’t know it at the time. It exposed me to the world of large scale organizing and the people who were central to the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement and the feminist movement. All were sort of converging and Chicago was a hot bed for a lot of that organizing. It was a tremendous exposure to seeing things in a broader perspective  and understanding how we may think we’re doing things in isolation but we never are. Everything is organized, nothing is not organized. It’s just a question about where you fit.

Changing the paradigm

The dominant paradigm today is one of separation. We separate ourselves by income, by gender, by race, by age. In the real world, there is no separation; everything and everyone is connected. Major institutions use that major paradigm to maintain there separation from each other and therefore create a world of polarization. this, to me, is the opposite of the way nature works. The natural law is everything and everyone is connected. Not that there aren’t difference, but we don’t have to use that natural separation to destroy. I think that polarization ultimately leads to destruction.

I understand how to polarize, I also learned that methodology. It’s modern politics. But survival is getting above that system of control and changing that paradigm back to one of no separation, no polarization. There is a political movement to do that. There are those who share that point of view. The question is will there be enough of us soon enough to reach what’s called that breakpoint where thought and ideas behind that become the dominant paradigm.

I think Obama, who’s actually an organizer from Chicago, understands that. That’s why he’s taking on all these issues–healthcare, the environment, the war–simultaneously. Some people say he can’t do that. But he has to do that because all the issues are the same. They’re all built on the same paradigm of polarization and control that ultimately leads to destruction. So you have to take them on all simultaneously in order to change the paradigm. I think he understand that.

Invisibility vs influence: the added challenge facing Native Americans

Native Americans were basically a reservation people, although most of us live in cities. We were invisible because of federal policy. When other groups were brought into the city, they were put in defined geographical areas. It was the opposite for Native Americans this was out homeland. They didn’t want to put all the Indians together; they wanted to divide them. That’s why we don’t see Indians by-and-large living in one area.

Minneapolis is somewhat unique. There are a thousand Indians living near Franklin Avenue, so you literally have a physical Native community.

I began to understand and realize that we’ve got to claim parts of the cities. We have to build the physical infrastructure along with organizing and establish visible communities if we’re going to have power in communities. For people living in defined geographical areas, there is enough people and enough votes to have representation on city councils, county boards and all that. That’s called community development.

The Dakota War of 1862 (Dakota Conflict)

Information from Minnesota Historical Society’s website 

“In 1862, Minnesota was still a young state, part of a frontier inhabited by more than one million Indians. Times were hard and Indian families hungry. When the U.S. government broke its promises, some of the Dakota Indians went to war against the white settlers. Many Dakota did not join in, choosing to aid and protect settlers instead. The fighting lasted six weeks and many people on both sides were killed or fled Minnesota. Former Minnesota governor Henry Sibley led an expedition of soldiers and Dakota scouts against the Dakota warriors. The war ended on December 26, 1862, when thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Afterwards the government forced most of the remaining Dakota to leave Minnesota. For white Minnesotans, their experience of blood and terror negated all promises they had made to the Dakota. Stories and history books told about the great “Minnesota Massacre,” but for many years the Indian side of the story was ignored.”



Challenging the status quo in Hollywood

Increasingly, I’m interested in producing. There is still very little Native produced films or television coming out. Most of what you see in Indian film or television is public television, which is good but it doesn’t have the mass audience. I understand how the media works. I’ve built relationships with the media. I should be helping to break down those barriers on the production side.

There had never been a film on the Indian Civil Rights Movement. I decided to seek out groups  that would support me doing a film on the American Indian Civil Rights Movement. This was the logical thing for me because I  really came into my work through the Civil Rights Movement. I produced the film and ABC distributed it; NBC picked it up. The film, Native Nations: Standing Together for Civil Rights, was released in 2008. It was my the first film I wrote and produced. It was also the first film ever completely produced, written, directed by Native Americans on a major network.

Now, I have money from one of the networks to work on my next movie. It’s a film about my great uncle Charles Eastman. The writer who inspired me from the very beginning. When my grandmother gave me his books to read those were the books that first inspired me. Now I am making a film about him.

The future of organizing–the internet

The future networks aren’t going to be about land, they’ll be about the internet. I tend to believe the media, now the internet, has such power to influence and advise people how to deal with issues. As an organizer, we have to be able to more effectively work with the media and understand the media. What I see as organizing is increasingly being also connected to the media and using particularly the internet to get information out; using the technology of the media to inform, to advise and to train. It’s going to be done by young people working from their homes, their schools and their local organizations, all through their computer networks.

It’s really a small universe we live in. If you believe there is no separation, then more and more we have to bring people together. I see the media in its various forms and formats as the way to do that.

Below: trailer for Sydney Beane’s film, OHIYESA



Below: audio of Syd Beane talking about spirituality