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Woman transforms symbol of hate into positive message on South Dakota roadway

Sandra French, a Rockyford resident, takes a selfie with the medicine wheel she created to cover up a swastika symbol on a road on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Sandra French via Rapid City Journal

ROCKYFORD, S.D. -- When Sandra French saw that a white Nazi-style swastika had been spray-painted on a road near her home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, she decided to do something about it.

"When I saw it I was like man, that’s wrong," the 48-year-old teacher and Rockyford resident said. "This is my community, and I wasn’t going to let that stand there."

French decided to respond to the hateful symbol by turning it into a beautiful one.

"The image of the medicine wheel just popped into my head," she said.

The medicine wheel is a symbol used by many Native American tribes, including the Lakota, to represent the cycles of life, spirituality and knowledge.

"It means a lot of things to different people," French said. "To me, it means strength, it means balance. The medicine wheel means balance: your spirituality, your emotions, your physical health, your mental health."

After seeing the swastika on Nov. 21, French bought black, white, yellow and red spray cans in Rapid City. Two days later, she put on gloves and got to work, spraying the colorful circular symbol over the swastika.

While she was painting during dusk, she saw a police car driving towards her.

"Oh great, they’re going to think I’m the one tagging this up," French recalled thinking. "I'm good. I'm just fixing stupid," she told the smiling police officer.

News of the swastika and its transformation into a medicine wheel went viral after Daniel Bear Runner, another Rockyford resident, shared before and after photographs on his Facebook page early Monday morning.

"Seen something change from bad to good yesterday when I drove by this," he wrote on his post, which has been shared more than 1,500 times as of Thursday morning.

The images then reached Twitter when Ruth Hopkins, a Lakota and Dakota writer, shared them with her 71,000 followers.

Bear Runner, a 51-year-old Navy veteran, said he went to see the swastika graffiti last week after his friend told him about it.

Sure enough there was the swastika sign," he said. "Lately with all of the hate messages and all the hate things in the world, it comes to represent something very negative in the world," he said.

While different versions of the swastika symbol exist in many cultures, including the Lakota culture and across South Asia, both Bear Runner and French said the symbol they saw is clearly the version used by the Nazi regime.

Bear Runner said he has no idea who would have created the swastika, but it would have been easy to do in the middle of the night without getting caught.

On Thanksgiving, Bear Runner returned to the site and saw that the swastika had been turned into a colorful medicine wheel.

The message went out that we changed something from negative to positive," he said, calling the medicine wheel a symbol of peace and unity.

“The one thing that I hope people would get from this is that people could just be kinder to each other," French said. "Because there's been so many more stories of closet racists emerging and just being downright mean, ignorant. And none of my Native friends deserve to be treated like that."

“I really wish more light-skinned people, non-Native people would speak up" against racism, said French, who is a non-Native of Scottish ancestry and has Lakota children.

French said she's witnessed Native friends being followed and profiled as shoplifters in stores. Just recently, her ex-husband told her that he overheard a salesperson telling a co-worker that "we don't want his kind here."

“We all need to take a stand against ignorance," she said. "Just like people teach racism, we can teach to not be racist."