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Racism in Rapid City: Calls for Accountability Continue Weeks After Harassment

As police ask for patience, Indians in Rapid City, South Dakota, demand justice for a group of kids who suffered abuse and racial discrimination.

With few announcements from the Rapid City Police Department or Mayor’s office since the January 24 abuse of 57 Lakota children in the town’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, calls for justice from Native communities continue to echo across the Northern Plains.

One hundred-fifty of these voices gathered at a forum hosted Monday evening by Lakota pastor Larry Salway at He Sapa New Hope church in north Rapid City. Hoping to start the dialogue, the Native Pastor invited Mayor Sam Kooiker and Police Chief Karl Jegeris to attend and take questions from the community.

Though appreciative to voice their concerns, most attendees came away feeling it accomplished little. “They keep telling us to be patient. Why is it always us being patient when a white man does something?” asked an elderly Lakota man.

RELATED: Suspects Who Hit Native American Kids With Racial Slurs, Beer Identified, Police Say

Early in the meeting, in a surprise move, Mayor Kooiker held a copy of last Saturday’s January 31 edition of the region’s Rapid City Journal above his head. As he held the paper upside down, the mayor pointed at the front-page headline, “Did Native Students Stand For National Anthem?” and cited it as an example of “institutional racism.”

“He said, ‘I’m holding it upside down for obvious reasons,’” said, Chas Jewitt, a young Lakota woman in attendance. Coming one week after the incident, the headline further agitated an already aggrieved community with its implication the children of American Horse School were possibly to blame for the abuse they suffered. After the predictable firestorm, the Journal’s Sunday lead editorial contained an open apology for the headline to the community.

According to Jewitt, Kooiker also said he abhorred the headline, but “he’s carrying a copy of it around town to show folks,” Jewitt said. Whatever his purpose, the mayor’s continued scapegoating of the newspaper has deflected little attention away from what many in Rapid City’s Indian community see as a pattern of endemic racism in most aspects of the city.

Right, Deb White Plume addresses Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris, far left, and Mayor Sam Kooiker, at a public forum Monday to discuss racially motivated incidents in the city. American Indian Movement founder Clyde Bellecourt sits in the front row, top center, listening to the testimony. Photo courtesy Jesse Short Bull.

The next morning, at a press conference in the Rushmore Plaza Hotel next to the civic center, Chase Iron Eyes, an organizer for the Stand Against Racism rally to be held that evening, said “Rapid City … is ground zero for race relations across America. We call it the Mississippi of the North. Statistics bear this out, all those found dead along Rapid Creek, all those shot by the police, people in Pennington County Jail – we represent 54 percent of the inmates in its population, yet our adult males overall in Pennington County are no more than 15-percent.”

Anticipating the rally, Iron Eyes said, “You never need a thousand people, or even a majority, to create fundamental change.”

That evening, with up to 300 protesters gathered near the east entrance to civic center’s ice pavilion, home to Rapid City’s Rush hockey team, Cody Hall, another organizer, surveyed the assembled crowd of elders, moms and dads and children. Behind the peaceably assembled indigenous peoples, a stream of hockey fans flowed into the arena. Behind them stood several Rapid City Police officers. If not more in number, certainly more prominent than at the last, now notorious, Rush home game.

“Not everyone in this town is racist,” said Oglala Lakota Deb White Plume, to those gathered in the advancing evening. “There’re white people here with us who are not racists. But the power structure of this town, this county, this state, I believe are racists.

“Awhile back here we had eight Lakota men drown in Rapid Creek,” she added. “At home, our men do not drown. Why do they drown here? A year or two ago, we had Lakota people walking around with white people pouring urine on them. Now we have our sacred ones getting beer thrown on them…as a mother and a grandmother, I’m offended by that.”

White Plumes remarks were emblematic of the evening, as onlookers, at turns defiant, then saddened, reflected on what each speaker said. Just after 6:30 p.m., a drum group played an honoring song, and the crowd slowly dispersed.

“We came here to support the children of American Horse School, the children of our Lakota nation, Cheyenne nation, Shoshone nation, who all have children going to school in this town,” White Plume said.

On Wednesday, Rapid City’s Human Relations Committee met with Justice Department meditator Carol Russo on the third floor of City Hall in downtown Rapid City. There seeking answers was recent Oglala Lakota Tribal Chairman Bryan Brewer. Brewer, long time director of the Lakota Nation Invitational (LNI), a multi-event gathering of Native American schools in the Northern Plains that includes a prestigious girls and boys high school basketball tournament, made an impassioned plea:

“We came to Rapid City 36 years ago because of racism,” said Brewer. “After the Wounded Knee takeover … no one would play our Indian schools in the area. So we started an all-Indian tournament. Next year will be our thirty-seventh year at the civic center.

“I’ve been fighting racism in Rapid City for that many years,” Brewer continued. “Right now we’re at a boiling point, because our children are being abused. Every December, I bring 2,500 students to Rapid City to participate in athletic, academic and cultural events. When we meet with the mayor about the Lakota Nation, we’re going to ask him: What are you going to do? What is your plan to help keep the LNI here in Rapid City?”

Brewer went on to remind the crowd that South Dakota remains Lakota ancestral land.

“I don’t want to run. This is our home. This is our Black Hills – our Paha Sapa, this is ours,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to run from here. We came here to fight, the fight is here in Rapid City, and I believe we should stay here.”

But, when the meeting broke up, the only answer those seeking answers obtained was that, though the civic center was owned by the city, there was nothing the Human Relations Committee was empowered to do.

As it has from the beginning, it all fell back to the Rapid City Police.

Following these three eventful days, in a February 12 statement, Rapid City Chief of Police Karl Jegeris announced, simply, there was nothing new to announce.

“We are aware that these allegations have become a focal point of heated public concern and discussion. The circumstances surrounding this incident are unique and wide-ranging in scope. These are serious allegations that demand a thorough investigation. I ask that the public be patient with our agency as our detectives do what they do best; gather the facts of an incident, etc.,” he said.